I finally feel I achieved something this holiday: I went for a run for the first time in nearly eight months. My trainers were covered in dust from lack of use. To be honest, I walked quite a bit of it, which was bad even by my standards (I still find it hard to run continuously for twenty minutes or more and I do wonder how much is the depression depleting my stamina), but at least I was out for half an hour when I only expected to manage fifteen or twenty minutes. I came back exhausted and a bit faint, but also somewhat reinvigorated. So that’s a positive result. I’ll try to go for another run on Sunday. I’d like to build a run every Sunday and Friday through the summer, although the latter might be harder to fit in between therapy and Shabbat (the Sabbath).
I guess I’ve achieved a couple of things this holiday, actually. I managed to get through Pesach OK, albeit with depression and some religious OCD, but less than the last couple of years except for one bad twenty-four hour hour period. I did some chores that needed doing and I went out yesterday with my Dad. I proof-read another two chapters of the second draft of my Doctor Who book today and have been taking notes for revisions on the next chapter. I realised that writing the book has required me to read the feelings and motivations of various characters implied, but not explicitly stated, by the scripts and body language and intonation of the actors. I think I’ve done this better than I expected, but it is something I often have to do consciously and struggle with sometimes; I’m not always sure I’ve read them correctly. I’m not sure where that puts me on the autistic spectrum inasmuch as I find this hard (autistic),but I can do it to some extent (not autistic). I guess it is a spectrum, with various degrees of severity.
I’m also trying a couple of new techniques for dealing with the depression, using my davening (prayers) as a mindful meditation technique (as per Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in Jewish Meditation) and trying to accept my difficult thoughts and emotions rather than repressing them or getting anxious or depressed about them or indeed encouraging them, but I’m still trying to learn how to deal this and I wouldn’t like to say if they’re working at this stage. Maybe I will write more on this when I’m more certain of how I’m managing it.
I suppose that those are all positive achievements, considering I was only off for two weeks and most of that was Pesach. It’s always hard to accept that I’ve achieved things, though.
The rest of this post might be considered a very long digression, but it’s necessary to shed some light on something I’ve referred to here before more than once. In fact, there might be a couple of people reading this who know that this is something I’ve been writing about and worrying about for many years, but I’ve seen something that makes me think this isn’t just my paranoid/introverted/depressed/autistic/whatever feelings, but something that others have observed in more objective ways. If you want the short version, it’s mainly just me saying that a clever academic somewhere else online agrees with me about my being socially isolated in the Jewish community. As for the long version:
On the Judaism Without Apologies blog Israeli polymath (computer scientist, political scientist and Talmudist) Moshe Koppel has been writing a sort of comparative psycho-sociological study of Orthodox Judaism and the Orthodox community versus the liberalism of non-religious American Jews. I find it fascinating, even though I would query some of it and need more time to digest more of it (I’m hoping there will be a book version, because I suspect I internalise and evaluate information better in book format than blog format), partly because of the light it has shone on my evolving political views and my uncomfortable position in the Orthodox world. I’m going to leave my (possibly somewhat unusual) politics out of this post and just look at the sociological side of things.
Koppel has been making his study concrete by looking at a couple of stereotypical fictional characters to represent each world, primarily Shimen, an Orthodox Jew and Holocaust survivor, and Heidi, a fairly secular American Jewish baby-boomer. His most recent posts have been looking at the fine balance of Shimen’s religious world and the way this world has vanished in the next generation to be replaced by two streams of Orthodoxy going in opposite directions: a religious fundamentalism rejecting Western culture and a somewhat conflicted (or hypocritical), accommodationist attitude in more moderate religious thinkers. Broadly, the former corresponds to Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism, the latter to Modern Orthodoxy (I would question this a bit, as I felt he was taking examples from the extreme of Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy and ignoring what is sometimes described as Centrist Orthodoxy, but we can leave such hair-splitting of practice aside for now). Various posts have used game theory and sociological theory to show how forms of communal identification and ideological progression in both worlds result in a need for ever more extreme virtue signalling and radicalisation in both directions i.e. the fundamentalists become ever more fundamentalist to prove they aren’t liberal, while the liberals become ever more liberal to demonstrate they aren’t conservative.
The reason I bring this up is that the most recent posts explained to me my position in the Jewish world, and it is precarious. Koppel describes Shimen’s generation as neither Charedi nor Modern Orthodox, preceding the evolution of these viewpoints, taking what it wanted from the wider world (some secular education, some bits of mainstream culture) while quietly ignoring what it deemed problematic. Likewise, Shimen was able to balance the universal and particular elements of Jewish ethics. Shimen probably didn’t know many non-Jews, but he probably didn’t really hate them either or think about them much at all, really, as long as they left the Jews alone. But the next generation, confronted with an increasingly seductive, but increasingly anti-religious (both in the formal, atheist sense, but also in the sense of simply having ethical norms that are very different) wider culture is locked into one of two responses: build a ghetto and shut out Western culture as much as possible by demonising it or bend halakhah (Jewish law) as far as possible, if not further, to accommodate as much of contemporary Western thought and practice/society as possible. Again, the former is the Charedi way, the latter the Modern Orthodox.
My rabbi mentor once said I have a strong dislike of religious hypocrisy. It’s one of the most treasured things anyone ever said about me. As a result, I find both approaches problematic. I feel uncomfortable bending halakhah to fit ever-changing political and social mores and I have enough of a philosophical problem with postmodernism to be wary of trying to live my life in accordance with postmodern liberal standards. But I also disagree with entirely shutting out Western civilisation, which has many good points (as a geek, I have to say there is little geek culture in the Charedi world). Neither approach seems to me to do justice to the entirety and complexity of Jewish thought, the former prioritising liberal values ahead of problematic Jewish ones, the latter downplaying the universalist aspects of Jewish thought and at times adopting a prejudiced attitude to non-Jews and non-religious Jews that I can not share. Hence the aspects of my life that I am wary of sharing with my fellow shul (synagogue) congregants: my love of Doctor Who and other vintage television science fiction; my deep and treasured friendships with non-Jews and non-religious Jews, some of them female; my reading of non-Orthodox theologians and bible critics; the fact that I used to work for a non-Orthodox rabbinical college and so on. And, I suppose, the aspects of Judaism I don’t talk about much here, where I have a mostly non-Jewish audience, although this is due to irrelevance to my blog’s main topics as much as controversy.
Koppel’s argument is that Shimen’s middle ground has largely vanished. I think, for various reasons (smaller community size; older communities; more antisemitism; different attitudes to religious education in state schools; a non-Jewish political culture that is different and where religion and identity politics are less contested) the division isn’t quite as stark in the UK and perhaps other European countries as in the USA (Israel is certainly a whole other kettle of fish which Koppel hasn’t got on to yet). But it did give me some sociological back up for why I feel so alienated in my religious community, why I have the classic moderate Orthodox dilemma of “The people I pray with, I can’t talk to; the people I talk to, I can’t pray with” and why that makes it difficult for me to achieve the intimacy needed for close friendships and marriage within the community.
I do feel nostalgic for Koppel’s (or Shimen’s) world of “Litvishe gedolim [Lithuanian Talmud scholars] playing chess at the opera” and am saddened that it’s a world that has largely gone for good. I don’t know what the solution is, either for me or for the wider community. Koppel has hinted that he sees the possibility of growing a uniquely Jewish culture in Israel, which might be possible if the religious and secular communities don’t tear each other apart and if the Arab-Israeli Conflict doesn’t flare up again, neither of which looks likely to happen for long. But even if that’s the case, while an idealistic part of me would like to make aliyah (move to Israel), I don’t see it as a realistic idea for me for a whole tranche of reasons, not least my mental health situation and the language barrier. So I don’t know what I can do about meeting people like myself.
Maybe compartmentalisation, keeping my geeky friends/life and frum (religious) friends/life separate, is the only solution, but it doesn’t feel like a long-term answer. Unless I can find a wife as unusually positioned as my self, my children are likely to end up significantly more fundamentalist or significantly less religious than I am*. But I’m not sure how to find such a woman (even aside from all my other issues – mental health, geeky, etc.), but then, I don’t suppose many Charedi or less-frum/fundamentalist women would be particularly interested in me with my traits from the other side of the divide.
* And perhaps not even if I do find such a wife, as school and yeshiva mould character as well as parents and there is a well-known phenomenon of teenagers becoming significantly more or less religious/fundamentalist than their parents due to these influences.