Episode 4: The Struggles Of Being Religious
When challenges arise in your life, whether they pop up in your dating life, or in your friendships, do you ever have the feeling of just quitting and running away. I know I’ve had those feelings. That feeling of wanting to break away and to just start from scratch has popped up more than a few times in my religious life.
There have been some days where my faith has been so shaken that I couldn’t leave my house till I figured out whether or not I would continue being spiritual/religious. There have been days where I’ve been so discouraged by my lack of emotional vulnerability in my prayers that I’ve thought why bother doing this if it isn’t even a space where I can discover my soul.
But with all of these challenges I am so thankful that I have never quit. I have always maintained the belief that even though today is hard, who knows… who knows! what the next day will bring. In my humility I acknowledge that today might be rough, but tomorrow may very well be the day when my life is transformed and I will connect to myself or another person on a level that I’ve never experienced before.
“I was developing the discipline of prayer. And it felt so great at first because it was novel. It was exotic. I was experimenting with new language. I was asking my soul to think of things that I had never thought of before. To feel things that had it had never felt before. And then after a year it slowly started to become regular, kind of, to go into the automatic drive mode.” – Reb Misha Clebaner
Whether it was my struggles with prayer or relating to religious texts in a modern age where the other books that I read have a completely different understanding of Truth vs fact – in many of these awkward moments that I found myself in, to some extent, it was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to think about things that never crossed my mind while I was on auto-pilot.
Whenever I find myself to have a bit of turbulence in my life I buckle up my seat belt, splash some water in my face and take control of the steering wheel with an ever greater awareness of the surroundings around me than I ever had before.
Yes I did, in fact, feel sick to my stomach during those bumpy rides – while having a crisis of faith. That unpleasant feeling isn’t something to ignore. We shouldn’t glorify difficult moments in our life, but neither should we run away from them.
In this episode, I talk about three different areas of my life where I “stuck it out’ with some radical patience. I decided to stay committed and invested in the religious project even though it seemed to be taking more away from my sense of mental peace than it was added to it.
The three areas are: a commitment to studying Torah even when it is chock-full of historically factual inaccuracies (see below) or if it has messages that grate against my modern sensibilities. Another area is prayer, as mentioned above. And finally I talk about the desire of separating from negative people in my broader spiritual community – and if that is possible or even a good idea. I bring in some “Torah” (with a capital T, meaning Wisdom) from Brené Brown and her ideas around living a whole life that contains within it both the negative and the challenging and also the beautiful and the uplifting. Speaking of resources:
Are you interested in throwing yourself into some crises of faith? Already had one, or going through one right now? Here are some of the resources that I mentioned during the podcast:
Archeology Professor Israel Finkelstein – discusses in his book The Bible Unearthed his *theory* that the Israelites were actually indigenous to the Land of Israel and that there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate any large scale land migration from Egypt… that there is not enough proof to be able to say there was indeed an Exodus.
The Merneptah Stele from 1208 BCE – mentions the capture and destruction of the Israelite people. It’s not clear what this is in reference to. Could it have been a couple of the stragglers from the Exodus that were captured and killed? Could it be about a large scale war between Egypt and the Israelites in the Land of Israel? Just as there are competing messages and contradictions in the Torah, there are also competing and contradictory messages in modern academia around the stories of the Tanakh.
Yehuda Amichai – The Israeli poet created a poem about the idea of what it means to build lives that are centered around things that are only “good.” My teacher and the President of my Rabbinical School, Hebrew College, talks about this poem and the very same idea that Brené Brown touches on in a fantastic article here.
Full Transcript – Scroll below to read along:
00:00 The healthy thing to do is to say, this community, this text, this practice is actually just consistently bringing me down, and that’s important to notice and it’s easier to notice those moments of unhealthy struggle when you’ve actually had patience and you’ve stuck it through the other types of struggle. And when you notice that unhealthy struggled to pull yourself out of that situation to say, I’m going to put myself in a community where people celebrate me for who I am, and I got to be my whole self.
00:32 Hello and welcome to Raising Holy Sparks with Reb Misha Clebaner, the show where we celebrate the beauty in the seemingly mundane, we delve deep into Torah. We go back to the basics of Judaism one-on-one and get practical tips for building positive habits with both ancient and contemporary techniques. So much wonder out there, let’s get started.
00:56 Hello and welcome to Episode Four of Raising Holy Sparks with Reb Misha Clebaner. Today we’ll be talking about spiritual struggles that pop up along our journeys. Often these are called a crises of faith. A time when we really begin to doubt everything that we used to hold dear. Are all the things that have given us inspiration, hope and meaning are all those things true?… If these other things that I’m starting to consider are also true? How can we reconcile discrepancies in our religious traditions with new information that comes to light? So, in this episode I’ll talk about three times when I’ve had a crises of faith.
01:46 One time is around the conversation of facts versus Truth in religious texts, and for me specifically what’s going on with historical facts in the Torah.
02:01 The second crises of faith are challenges along a prayer practice or meditation practice or journaling practice. After doing such a practice for many months in a row, being disciplined about it and yet not seeing any results, what’s the point of it all? I thought to myself many times over. And it really shook my faith in the project that I was involved with.
02:30 The third crises of faith is about dealing with negative messages, whether in the text or with people that bring negative messages into our religious communities and how we deal with that.
02:45 So all of these moments in my life have really made me think, why bother? Why bother keeping kosher if there’s issues with the Torah? Why bother praying if prayer is not actually going to add anything new to my life? Why bother staying in this spiritual community if this is not even the community that upholds the values that they’re constantly talking about? That question of why bother is a question of spiritual crises when you’ve lost that initial spark and you can can no longer see why this journey is currently relevant for you. And honestly, it’s very possible that that answer to your moment of crises is maybe right now… it has lost some of that inspiration that you had originally and maybe this is an opportunity to kind of shake things up and to reconsider a lot of the assumptions that you had beforehand.
03:55 So I would like to start with my spiritual crises of dealing with facts in the Torah. So the first time that I really encountered an issue with this is when I discovered the archeologist from Israel, aptly named Israel Finkelstein. So, spoiler alert about his work; and also potential spiritual crisis that I’m giving over for myself onto you. So buckle your seatbelts… Is that Professor Finkelstein says that the Jews never actually left Egypt, never had any sort of Exodus, never had any sense of slavery under the Pharaoh, but this group of people is actually just indigenous to the land of Israel, to the land of Canaan and that they were part of this larger Canaanite family. And perhaps they split off from their brothers and sisters from their distant cousins; and they created a whole new narrative about what is important to them in order to kind of make a clean break from all the other people, their family members in that area.
05:14 So when I first heard this theory, I was completely shaken. I mean, one of my favorite holidays in Judaism is Passover, which is all about the story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt and entering into the land of Israel. It’s a story of escaping persecution and coming into freedom. It’s a story that means a lot to me personally as my family left the Soviet Union, oppression of communism, which is against religion overall, but against Judaism specifically… Of escaping all of that and coming into the United States of America where Jews have been more free in this area than anywhere else before in history. So the Passover story is something that deeply resonated with me and all of a sudden professor Finkelstein is telling me, you’re a passover holiday is nonsense! The story of escaping persecution and coming into freedom is nonsense! It was a very, very challenging day for me, that one specific day when I discovered this archeology professor. And it was really hard. It really was.
06:33 And the thing is, we have these sorts of crises of faith all the time after our first breakup is love worth it? Are relationships worth it? Democracy in the United States. It’s so obvious right now that it’s being shaken right now. A lot of people are thinking, well, burn it all down is the pull and push of democracy, of dealing with one another.. a system that’s based on majority votes is that the best system for us, maybe just toss it all out? So this is something that comes up in all areas of our lives, not just in religion. And so the question is, how do we react to these moments that really ask us: well, where are you in your commitment? Where are you in your resilience? Where are you and your curiosity and faith in this idea that you had before? Can you really begin to date again after a breakup? Can you really go out to the ballot box for the next election.. after all the issues of democracy right now? And in the world of religion, can you really go begin to pray again? Can you really host another Seder after you hear from an archeologist: Passover is not true? Do you react?
07:55 So for me, the way that I reacted to this very logical, reasonable argument by Professor Finkelstein is to say, well, if I’m going to fight logic with logic, reason with reason. So I just dove deep into all these other stories of archeologists to hear what they had to say. Do they also concur that there is no way that the Jewish people could have been in Egypt? I mean, no, just as there’s so much contradiction within the Torah with people going back and forth about certain issues. There’s also a lot of contradiction in our contemporary society about what our thinkers right now or are saying. Some say no Jews ever were in Egypt.
08:49 Others are saying yes, it’s possible in some of those archeologists point to these monuments that were made in Egypt and one of these monuments, this is an archaeological artifacts. It’s real. You can see it. It says “the Pharaoh of Egypt has stomped out the seed of Israel.” Oh, okay. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean stomped out the seed when the Israelites were in the lands of Israel? Was it a couple of stragglers that were escaping from Egypt that they were caught and they were stomped out? It’s unclear. It’s not really evident. A lot of the characters that we have in the Torah, Moses; Osnat, the wife of Joseph. These are figures that have Egyptian names, so if the Jews were just indigenous to the area of Israel, how come some of them have names that are similar to their cousins from Canaan kind of names that are popular in that region? And then how come some other folks have names that are very popular, or more in the style of Egyptian names?
10:13 So there’s a lot of uncertainty. Things are unclear about what the facts are. And so I think that when you first come to a place where you hear the facts that you had believed are not in dispute or not indisputable, and that there are other facts, well that’s a moment when you can either give up and to say “okay, well this religion, or religion altogether, is no longer for me.” Or perhaps you can go deeper. And that was my solution to the first of three crises that I’ll be sharing about… to this issue of facts versus truth. My solution was to say, “you know what… I’m going to go deeper into this religious project rather than quitting it altogether”. I’m going to go deeper into this idea. You know the same one that would apply for love after a breakup or voting after an issue in democracy. I’m going to go deeper into love after a breakup. I’m not going to pull away.
11:23 So for me in thinking about, well, what do I do with my Judaism now? I said, well, I don’t need Judaism to give me history. I can go to the library for that. I can watch a TED talk. I can go on Wikipedia. I can get my history elsewhere. That’s not my hope of what to achieve or to grasp from religion is a sense of history or facts. So instead my solution to that crises of faith that I had was to say, instead of facts, I’m going to be searching for Truth, Truth with a capital t. And so if Israel Finkelstein thinks that there’s not enough proof to demonstrate that the Israelites left Egypt and came into the land of Israel, that’s fine.
12:20 Right? The Torah says that there’s hundreds of thousands of people that left from the land of Israel, from the land of Egypt and came into the land of Israel. Okay, well maybe I’m going to have to change the way that I think about numbers that are used in Torah maybe it wasn’t hundreds of thousands of people that left Egypt. Maybe it was just six people, maybe it was six slaves that escaped and then went to rejoin their family in the land of Israel? Does that a possibility completely erase my sense of Passover, given me a sense of hope that just a handful of people who would not leave an archeological footprint behind? That these six people, their story of escaping from slavery and coming into a land of redemption.
13:08 Can that be a Passover holiday that gives me hope? Me Personally, I think it can. I think that what truth with a capital t is getting yet is the truth. That there is oppression in this world, the truth, that there’s hope and something to look forward to and freedom in this in this world, and so it’s the truth, the truth of love. The truth of democracy, the truth behind the religious journey, it’s the things that we can believe in. That’s what gives me hope. That’s what makes me feel that I should still stay invested in this project of religion and this project of Judaism that I’m in.
13:45 It’s the truths that give me hope and so when I read the stories of the Torah and they say we were somewhere for 40 years, “no, you weren’t” some academics might say, okay, well maybe they were not there for for 40 years. Maybe 40 is just a term used to designate a long time, so you have to look.. you have to scratch a little bit. Kind of like the lottery tickets with a quarter or a nickel or whatever you have. You had a scratch away. You’ve got to go beneath the surface and then beneath the surface you’ll find that the language that sounds literal is actually used to describe a feeling that people were having. It felt like 40 years because when you’re a runaway slave going into a land of freedom every single moment, every single day feels like such a long time, and so as a result, they say 40 years because it felt like a long time.
14:44 You were just one original person. All the sudden you find yourself in the in the collection of six to 10 people. You felt so alone in this world. You felt forgotten. Now all the sudden you have the strength of being joined by other people and your running to freedom. You make it through the, through the see if feels like the sea has opened up for you. It feels like you’re surrounded by so many people and you share your story with someone else.
15:10 Once you get to the land of Israel and they hear that story and they’re inspired and they say, well, the the water it split; that you had 600,000 people with you when you were going on that journey. And so it builds, but the truth beneath the surface, beneath the kind of edifice or a perception of facts, the truth is still there, and that is for me, what keeps me invested in this religious project.
15:41 Okay, so growing up in a Reform Jewish congregation, a liberal movement. Prayer is not as talked about as perhaps in Orthodox circles where people say you have an obligation to do the prayer three times a day. The obligation is there. The commandment is there. The community conversation is there. It centers around prayer, so that’s not something I grew up with.
16:12 Then as I was growing deeper and deeper with my relationship to Judaism, as I was starting to rabbinical school and going through rabbinical school, I was developing this conception of being compelled to pray to do this thing, even when I didn’t have the calling from my soul. It wasn’t shouting out “I need to pray.” So for me, the prayer did not necessarily feel relevant at that moment, but I was starting to develop this ritual. I was starting to develop this discipline and the same way that a ballerina does the discipline of coming to the the ballet bar, even on days when he or she does not feel like it’s time to do ballet. I was developing that discipline of prayer.
17:02 And it felt so great at first because it was novel. It was exotic. I was experimenting with new language. I was asking my soul to think of things that I had never thought of before. To feel things that had it had never felt before. And then after a year it slowly started to become regular, kind of, to go into the automatic drive mode, to kind of leave the office, go on the highway, drive home, and you don’t even remember how you drove there. You started the prayers, you finished the prayers. You don’t even remember how you got to the end of the prayers.
17:35 And so all of a sudden I started to realize, wait a second, my prayers are no longer affecting me. I’m not feeling anything anymore. It’s prayer even worth it. What’s the deal? Look, all these folks that are secular that are never praying, they’re having just as much of a life of meaning and fulfillment as I am. In fact, I might even be struggling more than them, because prayer is just messing up my sense of equilibrium. So what’s going on here? What should I do once I’m in this spiritual funk and feel like it’s no longer worth it for me to continue praying since it’s not having an effect on my soul. It’s not stirring me up anymore.
18:19 So one thing that I think is important is a sense of patience to realize that just because something is not working for me now, it’s not necessarily the case that prayer won’t stir up your soul in the near future. So it’s important to stick it out, stay in that process, and to realize that you’re kind of like a spider building a web. Even on the days when you’re not feeling anything, you’re building that web and one day, boom, you’re going to have this beautiful, majestic, prayerful experience. It’s going to get caught like a fly right there in that web, but you can never have that uplifting, incredible spiritual moment if you were not committed to that practice. If you weren’t going back to that ballet bar, if you weren’t creating your net. If he didn’t have that patience, there’s no way that you can have that lovely moment of prayer later down the road.
19:19 So I’d say patience is incredibly important, right? If for the first crises of faith that I mentioned, if the issue there was having a sense of curiosity and looking for the truth rather than the facts for the second crises of faith, I’d say in addition to curiosity, patience is key is to kind of stick it out.
19:41 There’s also so many other spiritual technologies that we have at our disposal in addition to prayer. There’s text, open up a book. Maybe it’s these words that will resonate with your soul rather than the words from the prayer book. Maybe, it’s an act of giving tzedakah, an act of giving charity. Maybe that’s what’s going to crack open your heart and help you feel alive and feel stirred up in your soul again.
20:10 All along the way, you’re still doing your prayers. You’re going back to that ballet bar. You’re building your net to get ready to catch that inspirational prayer moment, but you’re also trying other things because you don’t want to feel numb and so it’s important to be curious, to be patient and to experiment and to try things that might resonate with you while your prayer life is not having… is not firing on all cylinders and so you’ll, you’ll be reading something. Maybe you’ll get it there even though in that morning you didn’t have a great prayer experience. Maybe you helped a friend out, you did a Mitzvah and maybe it’s from there that you will feel stirred up even though that morning you didn’t have a great prayer experience. So I’d say patience and experimentation and trying different things in addition to your prayer life. Those are things that are really helpful and important when you’re feeling like you’re in a rut.
21:08 Okay, so this is the next thing is actually kind of more of a resource and a tips and tricks, so maybe this falls more into episode three, the into episode four, but for people that are saying, “well, I don’t even have a spiritual prayer life right now”. You know, maybe I meditate, but I don’t necessarily pray. And “how do I even get to the place of feeling like I’m on autopilot if I haven’t even learned how to drive yet? So what are some resources and tips and tricks for me to get to the problem of a prayer life that feels stuck? What can I even do just to get to that challenge?”
21:49 So a couple things that I’d recommend for people that are interested in getting and starting prayer. I’d say start easy and build your way up. Nothing beats a walk, a silent walk where you have nothing but the world around you and your own thoughts. Tip number two for people interested of.. getting into prayer and then one day will have their own crisis of faith with prayer. But starting off your prayer life after going on walks with yourself to get the body moving and to get your thoughts percolating into just kind of observe your thoughts and see where your head is, where you might need to express your, your prayer. You have to figure out what is going on first and what you want to react to. So nothing beats kind of a quiet walk where you’re just alone with your own thoughts.
22:48 The second tip I would give is to open up a little book of poetry or have short quotes or expressions or what have you. So for poetry, a book that’s really popular nowadays is the poet Rupi Kaur so that’s r-u-p-i k-a-u-r… Rupi Kaur, great short little poems that can really get the soul and the heart thinking. And you can build off of that and you can add your own words to the words that you just read in this book of poetry.
23:26 Or if it’s not poetry and it’s kind of more of spiritual thoughts, a great book is Gentle Weapon: prayers for everyday and not so everyday moments. These are kind of sayings from Hasidic Jewish, mystical… From this thinker called Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. And so it’s a little book and it has kind of little prayer like expressions and sayings, and you can use that as the jumping off point for adding your own words on top of that.
23:59 And then the last tip I would say for people interested in developing a Jewish prayer practice is the Shema, which is the central prayer in Jewish life is just to say the Shema. It’s six words. Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Say that before you go to sleep, then you’re starting to create the container. You’re starting to develop the discipline of going to the ballet bar of doing Jewish prayer. So I’d say doing the Shema a good way to get into it. And if you’re looking to kind of even take it one step further from there. The other central prayer in Jewish life is the Amidah, the standing silent meditation and reflection prayer. And so that’s 19 blessings and each of them is on a different theme, so I’d say rather than actually saying word for word, what’s in those prayers… kind of just look at the themes and then kind of do spontaneous prayer on those themes.
25:03 For instance, it starts off with a prayer about our ancestors. Well, reflect on the people that came before you and your family. What are you thankful to them for? What would they be proud of you for? Reflect on that. One of the last prayers in the Amidah and the silent meditation is a prayer for peace. Conclude your prayers… For peace. And then you can use these tips, whether it’s walking, reading poetry, or doing the Shema and the Amidah themes in the morning and in the evening. You can do that and then maybe later down the road you’ll also end up going into a funk sooner or later and then you can come back to the drawing board and attempt to revitalize your prayer life by doing the other things that I mentioned: whether it’s studying Jewish texts, acts of charity, and all, but most importantly, I’m having that sense of patience with your prayer life.
26:10 Okay. The third and final crisis of faith that I had is about reading complicated texts or hearing negative messages from other people in my spiritual community. So whenever I think about this idea, one of the first things that usually pops into my mind is the TED talk lecture by Brene Brown about vulnerability. And so one of the things that she talks in her presentation which has now gone viral and this concept of vulnerability is really catching steam. One of the things that she said in her TED talk: was that we try to numb the negative things in our life with the hope that the positive things in our lives don’t get numbed as a result of the numbing process.
27:08 But you can’t actually numb one thing and have the other thing left in tact. You can’t have a delicate scalpel and go remove the kind of.. anxiety or the fear or what have you. And then all the sudden expect everything that’s going well in your life to be unphased by your delicate removal of the negative things.
27:30 In reality, what ends up happening is that rather than the scalpel, what you’ve done is you’ve taken the a meat cleaver and you’ve actually removed everything. You’ve numbed the good and the bad. And so there is actually a poem by an Israeli poet and his name is Yehuda Amichai. And the poem is all about “filtering out the sediment”. All of the stuff that you don’t want, out of the texts. And in his case hiss talking about the Jewish text, of the Tanakh. Getting rid of all the things that don’t resonate with us, that we find offensive. Getting rid of all those things. And he says in the poem, all he’s left with is kind of a shell of the rich text that existed beforehand.
28:18 And so using the Brene Brown idea of if we want the good experiences, we also kind of have to wrestle and engage with the ideas that we find challenging as well. Ideas that are offensive to us or push us. Similarly, with people in our communities that push us to places that we don’t like to go, and kind of needle us in places where we feel extra sensitive. It’s the same thing. It’s pretty challenging to say, “okay, well every time I’m in the community there’s always one person who kind of gets on my nerves so I’m just not going to be part of community anymore. I’m going to go somewhere else”. And then you go somewhere else and again there’s another person there that you don’t get along well with and then you realize, well, you’ve tried to numb away the people that kind of grate away at you, but then what you’re left with is you no longer are in consistent relationship with the people that actually inspired you and lifted you up.
29:20 And so similarly to kind of.. realizing that you have to stay with a challenging text as well as the inspirational texts. Also, when it comes to community, you kind of have to be in there with the patients and the curiosity as well. The kind of the two things that I mentioned earlier for the first two crises of faith and you have to have that same sort of sense of patience when you’re in community to say I’m going to stick it out and I’m going to be able to kind of hold the tension, as the teacher of mine loves to say, to hold that tension between the stressful moments but also the beautiful moments in the great things about being a part of community. And so that’s something I struggle with. Just like I continue to struggle with prayer when I feel like it’s, it’s numb. Just like I sometimes struggle with texts and I feel like this isn’t factual. What’s going on? Why read something that’s not factual? Similarly, when I’m in community and not feel like, oh my goodness, I’m being grated on by this other individual. Again, I hope to maintain this level of patience where I can kind of just hang in there and to say, yes, it’s tricky right now, but is that kind of temporary challenge enough for me to just throw out the whole project out the window and to say I’m never going to do it again?
30:41 At times the answer might be yes, and that might be the healthy.. the healthy thing to do is to say, this community, this text, this practice is actually just consistently bringing me down and that’s important to notice and it’s easier to notice those moments of unhealthy struggle when you’ve actually had patience and you’ve stuck it through the other types of struggle. And when you notice that unhealthy struggle to pull yourself out of that situation and to say, I’m going to put myself in the community where people celebrate me for who I am and I get to be my whole self.
31:17 Fantastic. Similarly with prayer, to kind of wait it out and then to have that, you know, a meditation or that journaling session or that prayer experience where all the sudden you feel like you’re just on top of the world. Or text as well.. you’re reading something and you’re hanging in there and as a result of hanging in there, you, you read something that ends up kind of given you a whole new lens of how to look at the world and you’ve had this pivotal transformational experience.
31:48 So I’ve gone through all of these crises of faith and I know all of you will as well. And at times we want to protect each other and to say, I hope you don’t go through those moments, but instead I say, I hope you do go through those moments. And when you do, I’ll be there with you. Your friends and your family will be there with you. And as a result of going through that moment of tension, that moment of conflict, to grow from that, and to use it as an opportunity for deeper introspection and to reevaluate the reasons behind what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And to turn that challenge into an actual opportunity, for positivity moving forward. And if I’m going to use the metaphor of the show as a whole, to kind of look into the darkness, and to see a spark of holiness into what’s happening.
32:46 So as I go through my challenges, I look forward to continuing to share them with all of you and I hope you’ll be there with me and as you go through yours. I hope to be there for you as well. Wishing you all a great rest of the week. If you enjoyed this episode, I ask that you give it a five star review. If you really enjoyed the episode, I hope you’ll stick around for more of the show and that you’ll subscribe to Raising Holy Sparks. It’s so exciting to be on this journey with all of you. I look forward to many more adventures down the road. Take care. Bye.
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