Today is Lag B’Omer and the end of the mourning period part of the Omer, at least according to the minhag (custom) I follow, so I’m clean-shaven again and can listen to music without worrying about anyone asking why I’m doing it (even though my rabbi mentor told me that people suffering from depression can listen to music, I feel uncomfortable about my parents or anyone from my shul (synagogue) catching me doing it). Shaving again does lift my mood somewhat; at least I’m not so itchy. Still, it’s always seemed a slightly weird day to celebrate, especially as I don’t actually believe Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote The Zohar, which is ostensibly the main cause for celebration, and another difference between me and my community (although I just read that the connection between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death and the celebrations is very recent – as in Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lived in the second century, but the connection was only made in the seventeenth or eighteenth).
The other thing happening today is the most pointless election in the history of British democracy, elections to the European Parliament, an organisation we were supposed to have left weeks ago and which we may still, in some sense at least, leave, or at least lose our voting rights in (which would probably be worse than either fully leaving or not leaving at all). It’s basically being used as a protest vote by everyone annoyed with either the government or the opposition, which is pretty much everyone in the country.
I was always brought up to believe that there I have a moral duty to vote at every election, however pointless it might seem because “people died to win you the vote.” Ignoring the fact that this is arguably a weird version of the sunk cost fallacy and that, as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Portrait of Mr W.H., the fact that someone died for an idea does not make it true, I’ve always stuck to that, but today I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to vote for any of the parties. Not the Conservatives, with their incompetence and infighting, not the Lib Dems and Change UK with their insistence on overturning the referendum result (I voted remain, but I think that overturning the referendum will be far worse for our democracy than leaving the EU even without a deal), and certainly not for the gang of Marxist antisemites running the Labour Party or the racist neo-Nazis of UKIP. I can’t bring myself to vote for the Brexit Party either, so I spoilt my ballot by writing pretty much what I wrote here only more succinctly.
I feel really bad about it, like I done something not so much wrong as sacrilegious. Like I’ve somehow offended against the spirit of democracy and if Britain ends up as a dictatorship, it will be my fault (whereas in reality I felt I was making the only gesture I could reasonably make towards saving British democracy, if that’s not pretentious).
Anyway, enough politics.
I had a sudden burst of religious OCD, worrying about some kashrut issues. I’m not quite sure where this came from all of a sudden. I know that OCD thoughts never go away fully and one has to be vigilant not to give in to the compulsions or checking that goes with them, but I’m not sure why they have suddenly flared up today. I checked the first one with my rabbi mentor, but when the second thought came, I realised I was falling back into checking and (so far) resisted asking the question. In OCD, as in politics, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Dayenu is a song from the Pesach seder. After describing the Egyptian slavery and exodus, we sing “If [God] had brought us out of Egypt, but not wrought justice on them, it would have been enough. If He had wrought justice on them, but not on their gods, it would have been enough.” And so on, for fifteen verses, saying how even if God had not done everything he did for us, but only some of it, we would still be grateful (it’s fun to sing, though).
I realised I do a kind of reverse dayenu. “If I was only a geek and not autistic, it would be enough (to stop me getting married or building a career). If I was only autistic and not depressed, it would be enough.” And so on. I need to find a way to stop doing this. It may be entirely true that I am not going to build a career or get married, but endlessly repeating my mantra (as my therapist used to say) doesn’t make anything better and probably makes things worse. I probably do something similar regarding fitting in to my community; I did that again today after reading something on a frum site online that I really disagreed with and feeling that I will never be accepted in the community, but don’t fit in in secular Western society either.
Speaking of which, shiur was difficult again. First there was my stupidity: someone who goes passed me on the way there and offered me a lift, which I took out of politeness, even though I was literally just down the road from the assistant rabbi’s house. He saved me all of two minutes. Then I somehow ended up trying to get out the car while the engine was possibly still going and certainly before the handbreak was on. I just get so nervous around people that I end up doing stupid things.
Then I had another “Is this really the right community for me?” moment, when I just do not believe some of the things the assistant rabbi was says; I don’t believe Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar and I don’t believe that all aggadata (non-legal material in the Talmud, but in this case specifically narratives about biblical characters and sages of the Talmudic era) literally happened. That’s a relatively minor point on one level, because I do believe that these narratives, whether they happened or not, were written and preserved because they are meaningful, but I just feel like a dissident or a spy in a hostile country sometimes, where if I’m not careful I’ll slip and be ostracised.
But what really upset me was the substance of the shiur, which was about our ability to understand Torah being proportionate to our effort (in a supernatural way i.e. the reward is disproportionately greater than the amount of toil, as a reward from HaShem) and that toiling in Torah study is a goal in itself. I feel I just don’t understand anything, certainly not Talmud, but I don’t feel I can toil any more. I know I hardly do any Torah study at the moment, it’s just so hard when I often feel depressed and I’m trying to learn how to juggle mental illness and working/job hunting, and chores and community stuff and davening (prayer), which I still haven’t learnt after a couple of years of working several days a week (when I actually have a job). Maybe I could/should do more. I’ve been trying to do more just the last few days. But I never really understand Talmud, no matter how hard I try. I can understand Jewish philosophy sometimes, but that’s not considered important or particularly worthwhile. But I can’t understand Mishnah and Gemarah and it’s hard to make the effort to try. Even with Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), which I used to love, it’s hard to really connect and find anything meaningful (and, again, it’s not really considered meaningful study for an adult male). I used to find a chiddush of my own on the sedra (innovative comment of my own devising on the weekly Torah portion). I think I did that every week for about four years, but then the depression intervened and my inspiration dried up and I couldn’t think of anything. I haven’t been able to get back into it.
I just feel so separate from God, it’s hard to make the effort to study, particularly when I don’t understand and often can’t connect it to anything in my life. There’s so little meaning in my life, and I have so little drive to do anything, other than perhaps to write. Maybe I’ve just got lazy. When I was too depressed to work, I studied Torah every day (OK I did skip a bit in 2003-04), often for an hour, I think. Nowadays I’m struggling to do half an hour. When the depression is bad, even five or ten minutes can be hard. So maybe it is my fault. Maybe I’m just lazy or maybe I just don’t care any more. I don’t know. I’m just blaming myself more now, which isn’t going to help me make a positive change, like doing more Torah study.
This all made me think of the Gemarah (Shabbat 31a) about the six questions you get asked after death. Supposedly when you die, you get asked six questions by the Heavenly Court. They are:
- Were you honest in your business dealings?
- Did you fix times for Torah learning?
- Did you engage in procreation?
- Did you hope for salvation?
- Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?
- Did you (intellectually) differentiate between one thing and another?
However, this only helps you if you have awe of HaShem.
This is before getting judged for all your deeds. This builds up a sort of character profile of whether you had the right life philosophy before they examine all your deeds. Also, the whole thing – questions, court etc. – is deeply metaphorical and not literally what happens, which is probably beyond our comprehension.)
Of these, questions two, five and six are all about Torah study, so I’m pretty much stuffed there. (Apparently the Vilna Gaon saw all six as allusions to the six orders of the Mishnah, so they’re all about Torah study.) I’m obviously not going to succeed with number three either. I don’t know if I hope for salvation enough. I very much doubt that I have enough awe of HaShem. I don’t really think about Him much.
I do feel, sometimes, what is the point of my even being Jewish? Because I’m so bad at it. I don’t learn enough and I don’t daven enough, or with kavannah (mindfulness) or with a minyan (community), I don’t do chessed (kindness) or any of the things I should do. I don’t connect with God. I don’t have a worthwhile job. I don’t live in Israel. I don’t really know why I’m here.
There was probably more I wanted to say, but I’ve just descended down into depression and self-loathing again, after being OK most of the day (albeit not achieving very much either). I want to eat ice cream, but I shouldn’t (that word again) given that I ate junk at the shiur and will doubtless eat a huge amount of junk over Shabbat, but this has just upset me. And now I’ve spent an hour writing this when I should be winding down for the night.
I really am a bad advert for Orthodox Judaism. Please don’t judge all frum (religious) Jews by me.