Contact Us

Does Very Religious Mean Very Uptight?

Does Very Religious Mean Very Uptight?


“My friends claim that I got into religion because it makes me feel safe,” Danna commented.

It was Shabbat afternoon, and Danna, Beth and I were lounging on the sofa.

“I get that a lot too, ever since I started keeping Shabbat,” Beth interjected. “I honestly don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s true, maybe religion is my escape.”

We sat quietly for a moment. The question weighed down our buoyant dialogue.

Isn’t religion just another way to feel safe?

“I agree with your friends,” I finally said. “Belief in G‑d should make us feel safe. But that’s not why we believe. We believe in G‑d because it makes sense. If there is a world, there must be a creator. Our brilliantly designed universe has G‑d’s signature written all over it.

“Even the authenticity of the Torah is logical. The Torah claims that three million people experienced the miracles and revelation at Mt. Sinai. Who would construe such a risky lie? For a people that constitutes less than one percent of mankind, our Torah should be an obscure account. But quite the contrary—our Torah is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. We believe in G‑d’s Torah because it’s true. If it also happens to make us feel safe—that’s a bonus!”

I wish that I felt safe all of the time. Observing the Torah’s laws doesn’t automatically make people feel safe; it doesn’t transport them into a world of serenity. If only it were that easy! Instead, faith in G‑d is like a muscle that needs constant exercise. It takes conscious meditation on G‑d to push back against stress and fear. Faith pulls everything together into a purposeful mosaic, while skepticism wonders if there is any purpose at all.

Some of the most religious Jews out there don’t feel particularly peaceful at all.

If there was one Jewish leader who challenged the notion that you can be ultra-religious and still ultra-uptight, it was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. He told practically anyone who would listen to him that the basis of our observant practice is the belief that G‑d desperately loves us and cares about the goings-on in our lives. The mitzvahs are our way of connecting back to G‑d. That’s how we love Him back.

The Baal Shem Tov was not without critics. (Can a Jewish leader ever be without critics?) Many people, even other respected leaders, felt that he’d gone too far by assuming that G‑d was so intimately involved in the life of every creature.

The Baal Shem Tov was not without critics

But the Baal Shem Tov insisted that G‑d cares, that He animates every creation at every moment, that He purposefully micromanages every detail of the universe. The Baal Shem Tov taught about divine providence from mystical Kabbalistic writings and from Talmudic stories. He even claimed that the Torah itself was full of references to G‑d’s concern for our everyday affairs.

There was another scholar, a Talmudic sage, who also saw G‑d’s love for humanity in the most simple verses of the the Torah. His name was Rabbi Yochanan. He inferred G‑d’s deep concern for us from the most unlikely of places—the Torah’s list of non-kosher birds: “And among birds, you shall hold these in abomination; they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle [or the griffin vulture], the kite, the osprey . . . the owl, the cormorant, the little owl . . .”1

After studying this verse, Rabbi Yochanan was inspired by the cormorant. Whenever he’d see a cormorant, he would spontaneously praise G‑d for providing every creature with his needs.2 Why did the cormorant so deeply inspire him?

The Torah calls the cormorant a shalach. According to the Midrash, the word “shalach” is derived from the word “sholeh,” which means “draws up.” The cormorant is a fish-eater—it catches its prey by diving from the surface, drawing out the fish that G‑d has preordained to die that day.

Rabbi Yochanan was so taken with the shalach and its meaning that whenever he noticed a cormorant, he marvelled, “G‑d, your judgment reaches the depth of the sea. Even the deaths of fish are predetermined by G‑d.”

If G‑d controls the life of each fish, then it’s obvious that G‑d manages the events in our lives.

Which sounds nice, but how does it jibe with the fact that a variety of factors contribute to our circumstances? What about society, politics, the economy—don’t those factors play a huge role in our lives? What about our own choices that we make?

What about society, politics, the economy?

That was precisely why Rabbi Yochanan would marvel at a the cormorant. The cormorant reaches its beak beneath the water’s surface as schools of fish swim by. The cormorant eats some but not others, and that is the story of our lives.

Life beneath the sea represents the complex labyrinth of systems that govern our lives. “Why did I get a flat tire? It was punctured by a nail on the road.” “Why did I get the job? Demand exceeded supply and I’m qualified.” But if we could view our lives from the inside out, we’d see that every experience was custom-made for us. G‑d humbly couched His master plan in a natural chain of events. “Yes, I met my Sally as a freshman, we both ended up in Calculus.” Ha! If only you knew how G‑d enticed both of you to go to that college, and how He put you in the same class just so that you’d meet each other.

G‑d’s hand is “drowned,” so to speak, underneath the sea of nature. In fact, the Hebrew word for nature is “teva,” which is very similar to the word “tubu,” “drowned.” Nature intentionally drowns out our ability to recognize the hand of G‑d as the cause of every single event in our lives. That facade allows us free choice.

Every time we recognize the hand of G‑d directing the natural course of events, we mimic the cormorant. We “draw the fish out of the water,” or expose G‑d’s plan from within the natural circumstance. The mere recognition of divine providence in our lives is an accomplishment.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that pessimism and stress is indicative of a lack of belief, no matter how religious one may be. If G‑d’s in control then He’s got your back and everything that happens is an importantThe soul is optimistic and self-confident part of your journey. The soul is optimistic and self-confident, and sees right through other factors that obscure G‑d’s control.

When Moshiach comes, it’ll be clear as day that every event in our lives, life-changing or mundane, was set into place by G‑d for us, with very specific intent and a lot of love.3

Likkutei Sichot, vol. 7, pg. 54.
Mrs Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Fla., serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous March 27, 2016

I wish you had mentioned more about the achievement of recognizing Hashems hand in everything. I wonder if a person could see their challenges as simple choices that Hashem put before them, would they still do the right thing?

I've noticed that some people have a hard time dealing with the idea that Hashem concerns Himself with everything in our lives because of all the horrible things that have happened to people.
However, even that has a reason. We simply don't understand because we can't see the totality of Hashems work in everyone's lives.

We are expecting Moshiach any time now, and we all know that the world will get better not worse. Reply

Phil Thailand May 7, 2015

Confused of Leicester Sorry, 'confused' my comments other than the population figure were not directed at you, but at all those who cast doubt on the Word's account. Too many listen to secular anthropologists and so-called scientists and theologians who have a self-glorification agenda. The need for funding seems to outweigh the need for honesty and veracity.

By the way, my faith is real, I live by it, have seen Mosiach and my faith can't be reasoned away. I have qualifications in science and theology, but my experience in trusting G-d <28 years> is far greater than any confidence gained by my studies in formal institutions. Reply

chris May 6, 2015

to Eliezer You do not want to say that God cause many people to take the midnight train to Auschwizt instead of Georgia. That is a cruel way of thinking about God. This world is getting better. Now that you mention it that is not what I heard. This world is not getting any better. Most of the time, the tools we use make this world worse instead of better. Reply

Rikiya Asano Japan May 6, 2015

Maybe i am religious. Because of love toward Hashem makes me somewhat religious. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for May 5, 2015

To Chris What purpose would there be in a perfect world without any evil? That, if anything would be cruel--allowing us to live in a world we can do nothing about. Instead, G-d, in His infinite kindness, makes the world imperfect, and gives us the tools to make it a better place. Reply

devorah s. florida April 22, 2015

600,000 to 3 million Also, the count as per the Torah was 603,550 adult males between the ages of 20 to 60 at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. So if you count women, children until the age of 20 and men above the age of 60, that should be about 3 million. I don't know if 3 million is an estimate but seems about right for the total population. Reply

Devorah S. florida April 22, 2015

A letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Logical Proof of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai For those commenting on the authenticity of the Torah, you may find this letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe interesting. I am unable to paste a link so Google "Logical Proof of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai" and a link will show up in the results. (The first one by me)

And for those commenting on Free choice.... from what I remember hearing, G-d gives us free choice. He just knows us so well, that he knows what we will choose. For example, you know your child loves red lollipops. Have him choose between a red and green one and you know he will choose the red. But you gave him the option to choose green! Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY, USA April 21, 2015

"Who would construe such a risky lie?" Re: "Who would construe such a risky lie?"
That argument is also used (and has been used for almost 2000 years) to "prove" Christianity. Reply

Phil Thailand April 21, 2015

Blinded by the multiplicity of rules? Bravo! Well put Dave/Lambsev; I totally agree. Reply

Dave aka Lambsev Baltimore MD April 19, 2015

"religion" in the toxic sense is being preoccupied with keeping the rules to the point of forgetting the rule giver. In it's best sense religion leads us to a relationship with G-d in which we love Ha Shem so much that we obey Him Reply

Confused Leicester April 17, 2015

Phil, I'm not sure why you have me as a cynic, or someone who feels threatened, and nor am I trying to persuade the faithful to despair. The thing that distinguishes Judaism from other religions is that we are encouraged to ask questions instead of blindly following what a priest or imam tells us, and I asked an honest question. I am sorry if you feel that my asking a question threatens your faith - that wasn't my intention. Reply

Peter Walter April 17, 2015

I am an old man. I am academically well educated. I study Tanya and Torah daily . Though there is much I don't understand . Over very many years there is not even one single single thing that I can point to that I can say of either that is false or not true in any sense. Nothing requires revision or update. Of secular material the converse is the case. Of course I am nor looking for falsehood in Torah and Tanya but neither am I looking for falsehood in secular material. Reply

Anonymous ramat bet shemesh April 17, 2015

Hashem is my constant companion No matter what happens He is the one i speak w/first This may sound funny to some, but i am old enuf to know (savta rabba) that w/o this relationship i would b a lost soul I have a wonderful husband and family (bli ayin hara) but from modeh ani to kriyat shema I am aware of His presence No, i am not an extremist We are dati leumi people who now thankfully will celebrate 9 yrs after aliya on Yom Haatzmaut We came w/the mangal to Ben Gurion and have never looked back Shabbat Shalom to all Reply

marian carol kessler Philadelphia April 17, 2015

article from Rochel Holzkenner wonderful writing and very good. I wish all the people , I know could read this and understand the meanings. I have a friend in Federal prison and this would mean very much to him. is it possible to copy to give to my Rabbi and friends? thank you. You are a wonderful person and may G-d bless you and your family and others. Reply

Chanah Israel April 16, 2015

G-d gave us Hitler Chris - What G-d gives us is freedom of choice. Man reaps consequences from his choices. G-d allows us to experience consequences so we might learn. The sad truth is that man doesn't learn. We make the wrong choices time after time, so we get a Hitler, to whom mankind collectively gave their power. If G-d protected us from our choices - and for example, destroyed Hitler - we would be robbed of our free choice. Reply

Phil Thailand April 16, 2015

The exodus The Word of truth says 600 000 Israelite men left Egypt Passover <Pasach> 1492 BC. That was the way they reckoned their population back then. This translates to c. 3 000 000 people, including children.

'Confused of Leicester' quotes a population of 3 million for Egypt at the time of the Exodus: please quote which contempory demographer you are quoting. Obviously the Egyptians would not have included the Israelite 'slaves' in their census figures, anyway.

Why do cynics waste their time writing unbelief and philosophical distortions in their vain attempt to get the faithful to join their despair? Why do believers threaten you? The mystery of iniquity. We're happy believing, why aren't you happy disbelieving? Food for thought. Reply

chris April 15, 2015

A cruel egocentric point of view about God. So God gave us Hitler, Bill Clinton and all the rest of politicians. Amazing! Reply

Moishe Las Vegas April 15, 2015

Excellent Piece, Rochel Thank you. It's a beautiful reminder to stop kvetching about what's out of my control.
And, further, to be happy with it.
God bless you and yours. Reply

Sabrina Arizona April 15, 2015

Wise words I am a Christian woman who enjoys reading the articles here at This article is quite good. I say even if religion just made people 'feel safe', so what? What's so wrong with that? As for being uptight, some of the most fun loving people I know often have a very deep abiding faith that sees them through. It's the non-religious and those hostile to religion that seem to have more insecurities, neurosis and bitterness than anyone else. JMO and observation. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem April 15, 2015

A small illiterate tribe of 600 people crosses the Sinai into Cnaan. No one but them notices. Surprised at their own luck while crossing the wastelands they deduce that god saved and fed them, rather than their luck and skills. This assumption cannot be disproved and is passed from generation to generation as part of their tribal folklore. With each generation the myth mutates and 600 people become 6000 and then 600.000. Five centuries later the oral stories get written down by a scribe called Ezra and the rest is history. Reply

More in this section
Related Topics