A famous Chassid named Reb Mendel Futerfas once approached a Jewish man and asked him if he would like to put on tefillin. "Oh no, " the man said. "I don't believe in G‑d." "Neither do I," Reb Mendel said, without missing a beat. The man looked at him, surprised. Reb Mendel continued, "The G‑d that you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."
Some have a mental image of G‑d as an old man with a long white beard sitting in the clouds, holding candies in one hand and a whip in the other. Some think He's some invisible energy that pervades all of existence. Some believe He's a controlling force that's way beyond anything and everything we can perceive with our limited senses.
When I hear the word "religion" I instinctively cringeTo be honest, I hardly ever even thought about the possibility of a G‑d. The times it did cross my mind, I figured, eh, the chances were pretty low. I sure didn't see anything that would give me any indication that there is some faraway Being somewhere in outer space controlling the entire universe like a puppeteer— because that's what people mean when they say "G‑d," right? Ha, I scoffed. These things were better left for the fairy tale books. I live in the real world, thankyouverymuch.
When I grew a bit older, I started to wonder if there was indeed a cosmic unity to the world, but I did not call it "G‑d." If anything, I thought, G‑d was a distant, abstract Force that had nothing to do with me, so I might as well leave that for the philosophers to squabble about and get back to my biology homework.
Then, religion was the farthest thing from my mind. Now, it's almost all I think about. But not in the way you might think.
The "R" Word
Nowadays, when I hear the word "religion" I instinctively cringe. My stomach turns. My hands become clammy. My throat dry. On occasion, I have been known to break out in hives.
This tends to confuse people who know me as a Torah observant Jewish woman. The exchange usually goes something like this: Someone casually tosses out the R-word in conversation, triggering in me a sudden reaction. The conversation screeches to a halt. A confused look is usually accompanied by a long pause.
"What? What did I say?" the person asks in bewilderment.
"I am not religious," I answer with a shudder, after which I shake it off and try my best to continue the conversation as normally as possible.
If there's one thing I learned from my time spent in yeshiva learning what it means to be Jewish, it's that I should never be religious. Religious people are boringly conventional rule-followers who walk around robotically fulfilling a to-do list of duties for the majority of their lives—and feeling guilty for the rest.
I admit. I used to be kind of like that. Once upon a time, I allowed people to "convince" me that G‑d does in fact exist and that the Torah is indeed Divine, and then saw it as my duty and responsibility to abide by it. Don't get me wrong; the Torah-Is-True-So-Suck-It-Up-And- Deal-With-It mentality wasn't as scary and daunting as it sounds. A Torah lifestyle seemed so shiny and sparkly and inviting. It had all these great perks. It gave one's life meaning and structure and fulfillment. It provided nice things like community and tradition and a sense of being part of something much bigger than oneself. Perhaps most importantly, there was always a holiday with delicious, home-cooked food waiting just around the corner. And let's be honest. Who doesn't love that?
But a while after committing myself to the Torah-Is-True mantra and taking on more elements of a Torah lifestyle, I slowly started to feel an inexplicable heaviness come over me. And after hearing a myriad of forms of the same question, "Why are you doing this?", I started to doubt, to wonder. Why am I doing this? I tried clutching to "The Truth" as my base for solace and comfort, but like a tight rope under too much weight, it seemed to be fraying before my eyes.
And then, I started learning Chassidut. Not the airy, feel-good, diluted Kabballah stuff that I had once thought was Chassidut, but real Chassidut. Chassidut from the Masters. Chassidut from inked Hebrew letters on crisp pages of leather bound books, illuminated and brought alive by the brightest, most caring and humble teachers and mentors I had ever known.
Religious people are boringly conventional rule-followers who walk around robotically fulfilling a to-do list of duties for the majority of their livesI could say I experienced a paradigm shift, but it was more like a paradigm earthquake. Like stripping off wallpaper, Chassidut tore down all of my preconceptions of what G‑d is, what Torah is, what a Jew is. It made me realize that the world in which I lived was much deeper than I could have ever imagined. The more I learned, the more I began to peel off the layers of my identity as a "religious" person following rules that were imposed on me from this abstract maybe-maybe-not "G‑d" that is entirely distant and removed from my conception of reality.
Suddenly, the weight lifted. I stopped feeling myself so much. I was simply a Jew yearning for depth, trying to access the deepest part of myself, the deepest part of reality. Now, I wasn't just doing out of some parochial conviction. I was simply being. Being myself. In the truest, deepest sense.
I'll try to explain what I mean with a Chassidic explanation of a verse from Torah. In Deuteronomy, chapter 30:19, G‑d says, "I call this day upon heaven and earth as witnesses. I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life."
A religious person might interpret this verse to mean that "life" and "blessing" refer to Torah and Mitzvot, and "death" and "curse" refer to doing sins--disconnecting oneself from Torah and Mitzvot. But Chassidut teaches that life and death, blessing and curse, are not two separate entities from which we must choose. No, the Torah is telling us something much deeper: that everything in existence has life and death in it. The external of something is the death of that thing, and the internal of something is the life of it.
The internal-external paradox exists in everything in the world. The external of food, for example, is its appearance and taste; the internal of food is the nutrition and energy it provides. The external of money is the number of zeros that appear on your bank statements; the internal of money is the ability it gives one to sustain and enhance one's life and the life of others. The external of a person is his body; the internal of a person is his soul.
But what does it mean that external is death and internal is life? Anything external is in a constant state of deterioration, while anything internal is in a constant state of growth. To use an obvious example: physical beauty declines with age, while wisdom increases. And why is it that a person shopping for a car would prefer, all else equal, to buy one that is new than to buy one that is used (i.e. has lots of "experience" on the road), but if that same person needs life-saving surgery, he will want a surgeon with the most experience? The answer is that since the car is something external, something physical, it deteriorates, becomes less valuable, with use. When it comes to a person, however, experience is internal, you might even say spiritual. Therefore, it is in a constant state of elevation and improvement.
Judaism is not something we do. It's who we areSo when G‑d tells us, "Choose Life," He is saying that He wants us to strive to connect to the essence, the internal of everything. He is saying, very simply, "I want you to be a deep person."
And a truly deep person not only wants to connect to his own life-source and soul; he wants to connect with the Life of his Life, the Soul of his Soul, A.k.a. G‑d. In fact, in one of the prayers we say during the Bedtime Shema, we call G‑d the Soul of All Souls. The first time I heard that, it took me a while to wrap my mind around it. I can hardly grasp what a soul is. But the Soul of all Souls? That really sent my head reeling.
But that's what G‑d really is. He's in us, if we dig deep enough. So, we love G‑d for the same reason that we love ourselves. "You should love me because I am your life," G‑d tells us (Deuteronomy 30:20).
Tossing the To-Do List
Therefore, Judaism is not a religion, and Torah and Mitzvot, the commandments, is not a to-do list of duties. Does a person write on his to-do list, "Brush Teeth" or "Eat Breakfast" or "Go to the Bathroom"? Of course not. We do those things because we're human beings, and that's what human beings do. The same goes for a Jew. Because Judaism is not something we do. It's who we are. Torah and Mitzvot connect us to that innermost part of ourselves. And the deepest part of a Jew is his soul, whose source is the Soul of All Souls.
In other words, Judaism is about having a relationship with G‑d. But not an employer-employee relationship--more like the relationship between husband and wife. In fact, Kabbalah refers to G‑d and the Jewish people as Bride and Groom. The Zohar even calls the 613 commandments 613 romantic tips.
How can a commandment be a romantic tip, you ask? I'll try to explain by way of analogy. Everyone knows that complimenting one's wife and giving her flowers may as well be in the ten commandments of marriage. Well, imagine a guy who goes to a marriage counselor and asks, "How many times per day do I have to give my wife a compliment?" or "How many times per year do I have to buy her flowers?"--and then checks off his to-do list after every compliment he gives and every bouquet of flowers he buys. You'd probably say he was either a jerk, or mentally unstable.
A husband who does nice things for his wife, even those things involving self-sacrifice, does them because he loves her deeply. He feels she is truly part of him and has a strong desire to become closer to her. If compliments and flowers come out of duty, out of guilt, out of obligation, it means the relationship has gone awry.
A mitzvah is not something to check off a to-do list. It is the channel through which a person accesses his essenceThe same holds true for our relationship with G‑d. A mitzvah is not something to check off a to-do list. It is the channel through which a person accesses his essence, an expression of a Jew's intrinsic, unbreakable bond with G‑d. If we perform a mitzvah out of a burdened sense of duty, fear of punishment, or worse, guilt--then we've completely missed the point.
Many Jews are turned off by a Torah-observant lifestyle because they see it as something outside of them, something that clashes with their existence. But Torah is not an agenda imposed on us that, oh by the way, happens to have some great perks, too. That's religion. Torah is the opposite of religion. It's a Jew's very essence.
Getting to the Essence
Chassidut is often likened to oil. On one hand, oil is distinct and separate from everything, unable to mix with any liquid. On the other hand, oil pervades everything, penetrates all matter. The same is true for Chassidut. Because of its essential nature, Chassidut is beyond particulars, manifestations, qualities; yet it is the innermost core of everything. As essence, it both encompasses and transcends. It's not bound to any specific thing, yet it is the deepest, most quintessential point of every thing.
And when it comes to our life, that's what the Torah wants us to strive for: Essence. Depth. Being an internal person. Choosing life.
Everything else will fall into place.