I had a pretty typical Shabbat (Sabbath), except that a lot of it happened in the sukkah (thatched hut for the festival of Sukkot).  I got to shul (synagogue) last night and this morning (despite insomnia last night) as well as this afternoon.  I did get there late this morning as I went back to bed for a bit after breakfast, although as the service was very long maybe that was just as well.  My parents had a lot of friends over for kiddush (refreshments) in the sukkah after shul this morning, but I shluffed (napped) instead because I didn’t want to face twenty of my parents’ friends in a confined space.


Not a lot else happened.  I had some thoughts about not connecting with other Jews.  Some of it is being more modern or less mystical than others as I’ve said in the past.  But I think there is another difference of outlook.  A number of years ago I read a lot of Jewish religious existentialist writers (Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which admittedly is a hurdle for some people just to begin with).  Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and the Kotzker Rebbe in the nineteenth century are sometimes identified as proto-existentialist, then twentieth century authors like Rav Soloveitchik, Emmanuel Levinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Emil Fackenheim, Franz Rosenzweig (I couldn’t understand a word he wrote, but his life is quite inspiring) and Martin Buber (I haven’t read his philosophy books, only his Hasidic anthologies).  Of living authors, it seems to me that Rabbi Lord Sacks has an religious existentialist bent, although I think he would probably rather not like the label.  I haven’t read these writers so much in the last few years (in large part due to trying to study more Talmud), but I’m still strongly influenced by them and think about them a lot.

I guess if I was to brainstorm words and phrases I would associate with Jewish religious existentialism it would include: faith and doubt; inner struggle; covenant; encounter; the Other; dialogue; existential loneliness; emotional intimacy; authenticity.  These are themes that come up a lot in this type of writing and they’re mostly ideas that matter a lot to me and which I think about a lot (a big part of my friendship with E. is how honest we are with each other, which I don’t really have with anyone else).  Stuff about confronting your inner self, encountering God, encountering other people and acknowledging their individuality, accepting doubt as a part of the religious experience and so on.  I guess these are big, difficult words for lots of people to deal with, particularly if they are used to a form of Judaism that ignores these topics.

There’s a famous endnote in Halakhic Man by Rav Soloveitchik (practically an essay in it’s own right, it goes on for about four pages) about how Judaism is not initially consoling and comforting, but is a long struggle with doubt, suffering and pain before you get to the consolation and I think a lot of people – good, religious people who are knowledgeable in Torah – would find that unacceptable or just unintelligible.  I think it speaks very much to a certain type of person with a certain type of life (Rav Soloveitchik had a difficult life as he came from a family of great Torah scholars, was recognised as an iluy (child prodigy) at a young age and only went to school for one year, being hot-housed by private tutors with little contact with children his own age, then breaking with family tradition by going to secular university in Berlin, while being different to many other students by maintaining Jewish practice all against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism; later on his father, brother and wife all died in the space of a month so you can see why he would become focused on struggle, suffering and existential loneliness.  Some of the other thinkers on my list have signs of clinical depression or bipolar disorder too).

So maybe that’s another reason why I feel out alone by myself.  It would suggest I really am a bit of an outlier.  I guess if I wanted to meet people who think the same way, the best way might be to watch for classes on any of the thinkers on my list above at the London School of Jewish Studies and go there.


I mentioned last week that I wanted to write a devar Torah (Torah thought) for my shul.  This would be something about 1,000 words long, with careful use to sources to avoid anything controversial and no chiddush (innovative interpretations) on my part.  The more I thought about it, the harder it seemed to accomplish it and I gave up.

Today I thought that I could at least try to get back to writing a devar Torah to relate to my parents on Shabbat on the parasha (weekly Torah reading).  Jews read through the whole of the Torah (in the narrow sense of the Five Books of Moses) every year and we’re just about to finish and restart the cycle, so it’s a good time to be thinking about this, especially as I just started reading Genesis: From Creation to Covenant (a Modern Orthodox book interpreting Genesis with traditional and literary critical methods of interpretation).  I actually have an idea for Shabbat Bereshit (next Saturday) already!  So this seems like a good idea.  I gave a devar Torah on every parasha for three or four years, usually my own chiddushim, until it became a struggle with depression.  Writing primarily for my parents allows me to use whatever sources I want and write my own opinions.

The more daring thought I had was whether I should share it with some friends from shul.  I mentioned recently that someone who attended my shul died a few weeks ago.  I’ve thought about him a bit because he wasn’t that much older than me and was one of very few other single people in my phase of life (let’s say over thirty and under fifty).  He had a WhatsApp group that many people from shul were on where he would post his divrei Torah each week and people were saying at the seudah (Shabbat meal) in his honour after his shloshim (month after death) that someone else should take over.  I don’t think I could cope with sending my ideas out to a large group, especially as I think he found ideas in classic sources rather than suggesting his own ideas, which is a somewhat scary thing in Orthodox world, but I’m tempted to email a couple of my friends with some of my divrei Torah and if it spreads, fine, and if it doesn’t spread, also fine.

I’m very undecided about the second bit, trying to send it to people in my community, but trying to get back into finding something new and interesting to say on the parasha each week might be a way to get me back into thinking creatively about Torah and engaging with it actively rather than passively as well as restoring some of my enthusiasm about Judaism.  Initially I’m just going to focus on writing something for my parents without sending it more widely (unless people want to see it here, but it’s not likely to be particularly mental health-focused), maybe sending to other people in a few weeks.


I feel I often post stuff here where I say, “I read X and it made me feel God hates me” or “I saw Y and it made me feel useless and stupid.”  I feel I should probably say that those things are more about me than the thing I read or saw.  I’m not sure that I always make that clear.  I think some people get angry on my behalf with whatever it is I read or saw, which is kind of you, but usually I know, on some level, that that isn’t what it’s saying and that I’m interpreting it wrongly.  I have a lot of self-hating mantras in my head that I start repeating to myself really easily on my blog.  Maybe I should try not to write things like that, or to make it more obvious that I’m aware I should challenge these thoughts.

5 thoughts on “Jewish Existentialism (No, Don’t Run Away!)

  1. It’s amazing how much you still study, even though you’re out of college! I’ve always been so relieved to be done with schooling, so I’m impressed with your constant efforts at continuing to study!! Wow! You’re like an academic, I guess!! 😮


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