The Long Dark Night of the Soul

I was hit by a thought today that surprised me.  Since blogging on WordPress, I have come across a lot of Christian mental health blogs.  Sometimes there’s a kind of conversion narrative of a fall from the world into a pit of suffering and despair (this is particularly the case when substance abuse features in the narrative), followed by the turn to religion and the feeling of grace and salvation, which leads to renewed success (if that’s the right word) in the battle with mental illness or addiction.

The surprising thing is that this kind of writing does not really exist in post-Biblical Judaism at all.  I mean very deeply personal introspection of the long, dark night of the soul and the religious journey from suffering to redemption.  Judaism is a non-missionary religion and the vast majority of Jews were born Jewish even if they did not have a religious upbringing, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so few literal conversion narrative, but there could be narratives of suffering and despair leading to faith and joy, but by and large there are not.

There are Tehillim and Iyov (Psalms and Job) in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  In post-biblical literature there are some of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings that deal (directly or indirectly with his suffering).  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik deals a little with this in The Lonely Man of Faith and parts of Halakhic Man .  There are bits in the Sacred Fire of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe where he approaches this, but his focus is not so much the personal journey as the communal experience of Nazi persecution.

I am not familiar enough with the Holocaust literature to see how that fits in.  I think you might find something there, but not quite the same as the Christian type, not least because of the presence of clear villain figures in the Nazis, not to mention the fact that many Jews lost their faith in the Holocaust rather than finding it.  I’m not sure that I would class the writings of Elie Wiesel, for example, in this category.  I don’t think it is really that personal, inner type of despair, rather the despair from being dehumanised by an outside force.

I don’t know the Medieval poetry of the paytanim (liturgical poets) to know whether they dealt with these feelings.  Possibly they did (they did right rather erotic love poetry, something airbrushed out of the biographies of some major figures).

I have a few Judaism and depression books which include personal narratives.  The Road to Resilience by Sherri Mendell is a fairly practical book about overcoming loss.  I remember very little of Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz, although it probably is the closest to what I’m looking for, in that it deals with the author’s despair in detail (but by a Reform rabbi, not an Orthodox one, tellingly).  It might be worth me re-reading that soon.  Some of the personal stories in the anthology book Calling Out to You edited by Tehilla Edelman fit in this category at least partially, but as I recall the focus is more on the practical story of mental illness and recovery than the spiritual crisis.  Some are definitely what I have in mind e.g. “I had to unravel all of my preconceived notions about Hashem.  I used to think that G-d only loved me if I behaved.  The idea that Hashem loves me like a father didn’t work for me, because with a father like mine [abusive] it didn’t mean much.  I also didn’t understand how Hashem could let abuse happen to children, and I didn’t know if I could ever trust Him…  After much soul-searching, I came to believe that Hashem does care about me and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t call Him Father.” (From My Journey to Hashem through Depression and Addiction: Miriam’s Story in Calling Out to You.)

That’s about all I can think of, in a three thousand year tradition.

It’s worth comparing with the narratives I’ve seen written by people who became Orthodox Jews in adulthood, either non-Jews who converted to Judaism or ba’alei teshuva, non-religious Jews who became Orthodox.  These seem to be largely calm and peaceful narratives that start by laying out the writer’s initial antipathy to and/or ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, the story of how they encountered it close up for the first time, their experience of the beauty of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) and how they overcame a few sticking points (e.g. Torah/science conflict or gender and sexuality issues) to become devout Orthodox Jews.  There is occasionally tension with friends or family members who do not like the religious change, but there is no sense of suffering or trauma here, the dark night of the soul to which religion is the solution.  The truth is that if I was writing my own ba’al teshuva narrative, it would also be largely separate from my mental health journey, which did not really start in earnest until I was some way along my religious journey.

It’s just interesting that we don’t really have the vocabulary to express this kind of narrative.  I am experiencing that first-hand, in the difficulty I have expressing my inner religious life here and, fictionalised, in my novel.  I do not have a model to use.  It’s doubtful how much anyone could model themselves on Tehillim (Psalms) nowadays without falling into self-parody, let alone the difficult, complex poetry of Iyov (Job).  But there are few more recent models to look to.

I wonder if this is another reason why “leaving Orthodoxy” narratives, fictional and non-fictional, are so much more common than “joining Orthodoxy” narratives, as I have discussed here before.  It’s not really a genre that we promote (not that Orthodox Judaism encourages the writing of fiction or memoirs, or creative writing generally).

Doubtless part of the reason is that Christianity is a religion based on the personal salvation of the individual through the personal sacrifice of Jesus and mediated through the introspective writings of Paul in the New Testament.  Whereas Judaism is a communal/national religion based, at the very least, on creating communities based on love and mutual aid, building together to a nation state built, ideally, on love and compassion and eventually an example for a new world order built on love and compassion through monotheism.  There isn’t much room in that narrative for the individual’s long dark night of the soul.  It’s just not relevant.  It took some fairly unique circumstances to produce figures like Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav or Rav Soloveitchik who can let us peek a little at what a kind of Jewish dark night of the soul literature might look like.

***

As for Yom Tov (the festival), it was OK, but I struggled to connect with the religious ideals of the festival (hence, in part, this post).  I prayed a lot, studied Torah a lot, ate a lot, slept a lot.  I had a lot of aches and pains from my workout on Wednesday.  I think I’ve pulled a lot of muscles in my arms, legs and torso.  I did still go for a couple of walks despite the pain.  I also woke up in the middle night with a migraine yesterday.  My mood was mostly OK, but dipped a bit this afternoon.  That’s about all there is to report, though, aside from continued irritation at the illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door.  I think I’m getting a better idea of why that annoys me so much (aside from all the obvious reasons), but it’s too late to deal with that now and this is a long enough post already.

Eat Pray Read Sleep Fret

It was another ordinary COVID-19 Shabbat of eating, praying, reading and sleeping.  However, there was also quite a lot of agitated thoughts about religion.  I was thinking a lot about a few things, most notably Rambam’s (Moses Maimonides’) thirteen principles of faith and his understanding of reward and punishment.  These thoughts came from a number of things I’ve been reading recently, most notably Rabbi Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith and debates on the Rationalist Judaism blog about whether God can be meaningfully said to have “caused” COVID-19, which led me to re-read the appendix on Rambam’s view of reward and punishment at the back of Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?

Rabbi Berman’s book has left me wondering whether I really believe in Rambam’s thirteen principles in a way he (Rambam), and other Orthodox rabbis, would accept as truly Orthodox, mostly because lately I find myself drawn to some Medieval rabbis who believed that certain apparently anachronistic phrases and short passages in the Torah (e.g. the long list of Edomite kings which seems to cover more people than can easily fit in the gap from Esav’s (Esau’s) birth to the giving of the Torah) can be explained by saying that they were inserted by a later prophet or by Ezra the Scribe as an explanatory gloss, similar to a modern editorial footnote.  This seems logical, and more traditional than the answers proposed by modern biblical criticism, which see whole chunks of text as later insertions by otherwise unknown “redactors” (as this version is limited to just a few verses and still assumes some kind of prophetic source).  However, Rambam said Jews have to believe in the unchangeability of the Torah‘s text for reasons that Rabbi Berman ascribes to the influence Islamic polemics (basically, Muslims said that Jews had edited the Torah to remove references to Mohammed being the greatest prophet, so defending the integrity of the text became of paramount importance).

On the other hand, the more I think about Rambam’s view of reward and punishment, at least as explained by Kellner, the harder it is for me to see it as (a) authentically Jewish, (b) coherent in a world that no longer accepts Aristotlean metaphysics and (c) morally and emotionally viable, especially post-Holocaust.  As I understand it, Rambam’s view of the afterlife is based on Aristotle’s idea of the “acquired intellect”.  According to Rambam, the more we learn about God in this world (partly through Talmud study, but mostly through studying Greek philosophy, which he believed contained universal truths lost from Judaism in the exile), the more we perfect our intellects and join them to God’s intellect in the next world, which is the only true happiness or reward.  There is no get out clause for people who can’t do this for some external reason such as mental impairment or dying in infancy.  There is no mechanism whereby God can miraculously extend them reward.  So Rambam would say that there is no reward for the million children murdered by the Nazis.  He doesn’t believe in next-worldly punishment either, so at least they don’t go to Gehennom/Hell… but then neither does Hitler, whose only punishment was to live long enough to see his Thousand Year Reich destroyed by the Allies, which does not really seem enough.  It’s a hugely austere and elitist approach to life that in some ways I admire for its bravery and unwillingness to offer cheap comfort, but really it does nothing for me either religiously or emotionally.

As for why this upset me, well, there are two slightly different reasons, or rather the same reason in two slightly different ways.  I’m rejecting a belief, which of course leads to the fear that I may be making a mistake and rejecting true dogma and condemning myself to eternal non-existence, but I’m also rejecting communities.  Although both sets of opinions I’m rejecting were proposed by the same Jewish thinker, I’m actually rejecting two very different communities.

The first one is the mainstream Orthodox community, where Rambam’s thirteen principles are seen as the definitive Orthodox dogma.  In the Modern Orthodox community there is some debate about how they became accepted and what to do with the opinions of those rabbis who disagreed with them (and a lot did disagree – see Rabbi Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology (I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him lecture on when people stopped believing it was OK to say that God has a body (corporealism)).  Likewise, there is some acknowledgement in the Modern Orthodox world that there is no one perfect Torah text; there are minor variants out there and a history of rabbinic debate about how to preserve the text from corruption and deal with mistakes in copying.  But in the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world there is no legitimate academic historical interpretation in the sense that Rabbis Berman and Shapiro are engaged in, attempting to ask how beliefs became accepted and to what extent they were seen as binding at different times as well as placing them in their historical contest.

The second community is the one at the Rationalist Judaism blog.  There was a time when I felt very much a rationalist Orthodox Jew as opposed to a mystic, but over time I’ve moved on.  I’ve learnt that there are ways of understanding mysticism and myth that don’t involve anti-scientific beliefs about the world (as I explained a bit in this essay I wrote for Hevria) and I’ve moved towards a much more “religious existentialist” understanding of the world that has room for doubt, uncertainty and feelings of distance from God.

Still, it does feel a bit like I’m burning bridges in a way, because the idea of rationalism, at least in the rather simplified version discourse on the blog where it’s a shorthand for accepting evolution and an old universe and being opposed to the Haredi kollel system, was important to me once.  And Rambam is such a huge, towering figure in Jewish thought and Jewish history, sometimes seen as the most significant post-Biblical figure: jurist and legal scholar, philosopher, theologian, prolific author…  There’s even a saying that “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides] there was no one like Moses” – it’s just a huge thing to say that I disagree with his principles, even in a very small and non-committal way, given that I was brought up to see them as the essence of Orthodoxy (and despite Rabbi Berman’s arguing at length that Rambam himself walked back most of his principles in his later work, especially the one I’m most concerned about, the unchangeability of the Torah).

I haven’t felt like a member of the Rationalist Judaism blog community for a long time.  I was never a prolific commenter there and I have walked away from it at times from boredom, as it turned primarily into a prolonged attack on the Haredi world rather than a real examination of rationalist Judaism.  Still, I feel like I’m walking away on my own, trying to find where I fit.

Beyond that, there is, of course, a fear of what will happen to me after death, but I can’t pretend to believe something I don’t believe, even if I don’t at this stage accept the “prophets adding to the Torah” hypothesis either, I just find it hard to fully dismiss.  It just fits in with other worries I’ve had over time, wondering what will happen to less religious/outright atheist friends and family after death.  I believe that God is loving and just and I don’t believe that good people lose out on reward.  I also don’t believe that belief is everything.  I hope that that means some kind of eternal reward in the next world, given that good people often seem not to be rewarded in this world.

The reality is, of course, that whether or not there is an afterlife, and who gets to go to it, is nothing to do with me.  Still, reading these writers and other Jewish thinkers and historians makes me realises how small a place faith (in the Christian doctrinal sense) really has in Judaism, how much more focused on good deeds it is, and how present-focused it is.  There is almost no discussion of the afterlife in the Torah, while the Talmud contains three stories (Avodah Zarah 17a and 18a; I can’t find the third story, I think it may be in the Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit) about people who have led reprehensible lives managing to attain Olam HaBa (The Next World) with a single good deed or moment of repentance, leading Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the editor of the Mishnah, the oldest layer of the Talmud) that some people can acquire Olam HaBa only after many years of toil, while others can acquire it in an instant (I think I’m in the many years of toil category).  Belief seems to play very little role in these stories, which are focused on kindness and repentance.  I view them through a religious existentialist lens, seeing them as being about repentance, encounters with other people and perhaps with God (which is not the same as straightforward faith) and personal authenticity (an extended analysis of one of these stories can be found here and here).

***

I thought about these thoughts a lot over Shabbat, sometimes in a rather agitated way.  Still, I don’t know if it qualifies as religious OCD.  I felt that it just wasn’t as powerful and obsessive as my religious OCD thoughts usually are.

Still, I feel exhausted now.  I meant to write this blog entry quickly and go and read, but I got involved, said a lot more than I intended and it has taken nearly two hours.  These thoughts have been brewing inside me for weeks, though, so perhaps it is just as well that I got them out of my system.

Suffering

I just saw something on the blog of someone I know who is losing her religious faith a story about a child who was mauled by a mountain lion and severely injured, which, it was argued, is evidence against the existence of God.  The funny thing is, with one slight change, the story could be used on a religious website to argue for the existence of God.  The change, obviously, is to focus on the miraculous survival of the child rather than the fact that she was injured in the first place.

I don’t really want to get into a debate about the existence or non-existence of God.  I know what I believe and why and don’t have much interest in debating the issue.  I’m not a good debater and wouldn’t do my beliefs justice; anyway, debating anything doesn’t interest me much.  I don’t have an argumentative personality.  In fact, argument tends to upset me and I avoid it.  But I want to flag up something I noticed about myself, a point of psychology rather than theology.

Intellectually, I accept that my suffering (depression, loneliness, anxiety etc.) could have meaning and purpose.  It’s not actually that hard to think of reasons that could explain it.  But I find it very hard to engage emotionally with that and because I can’t engage emotionally with it, I find it very hard to internalise it and stay inspired to keep going.  As I’ve mentioned, all my religious activities (prayer, Torah study, good deeds, hitbodedut) are suffering at the moment.  I’m not doing much religiously at all.  That’s partly due to lack of energy, concentration and motivation directly from the depression, but also because of my irrational, but deep-seated, feeling that HaShem (God) hates me and wants me to suffer out of anger, hatred and even spite.  Intellectually, I think this is nonsense, but our emotional brains are older and stronger than our rational brains and they tend to win.  As the rabbi of my shul (synagogue) said to me, I won’t experience simcha shel mitzvah (the joy of performing the commandments) until I’m over my depression.  Of course, at the moment it looks like I will never be over the depression, which takes me back to “God hates me” even though He could be storing up infinite reward to recompense me for my suffering, in this world or the next.

What matters to me is not the philosophical issue of whether God exists; as I said, I think, on balance, that He does, but even if He doesn’t, the issue doesn’t interest me that much these days.  What matters to me is finding a way to function and, on some level, to find joy in life despite the suffering that seems to be a fixture.  I don’t know how to do that (yet?).