Why is it that observant Jews seem to have such a tranquil life? What is the secret to inner peace that these people have found? Is there some special ingredient in the kosher food they eat?


I'm not sure what exposure you have had to observant Jews, but judging by your letter, it seems to have been from a distance.

Externally, Judaism does provide a lot of stability. Many (though not all) observant Jews have what today most people are lacking: a solid family, a community for support, leaders to respect, special days and events to break the monotony, and a G‑d to turn to.

But let's not idealize the Jewish way of life. In my experience, observant Jews face as much turmoil and challenge in life as anyone else. They have ups and downs, tragedies and comedies, victories and disappointments. The only advantage they have is that Judaism provides a context and an understanding for this turmoil.

Turmoil is an inherent condition of being human. This is because we are made up of a body and a soul. The body is this-worldly and physical; the soul is other-worldly and divine. They are polar opposites. And our "self" is stuck in between.

The body and the soul both want to usurp our identities. The body claims that this world is all there is, so enjoy it. The soul has a vision of a higher, more spiritual truth, and pulls us to seek it out. These polar-opposite views are both our own, and each vies for our attention. This duality within our very identity is a sure recipe for inner turmoil. But that's how we were created.

Some of us have been taught that we should seek inner peace and serenity. Some even claim to have reached it. You can experience a temporary serenity by ignoring the voice of either the body or the soul — either by indulging in materialism or escaping to a spiritual oasis. But our other side will eventually assert itself. As long as we inhabit this earth our bodies and souls are bound to each other. We can become "spiritual," but our bodily cravings will not disappear; we can become materialistic, but our soul's yearning will not be quieted.

Judaism offers a different path. The Kabbalists taught that the soul was sent down to this world not to avoid the body, but to teach it. The focus of Jewish spirituality is refining our worldly self — our bodily cravings, our character, our lifestyle. This is not achieved by escaping the body/soul tension, but rather by embracing that tension. Enjoy the pleasures of this world, but don't become trapped in them. Seek spirituality, but don't lose your personality.

The Torah doesn't promise tranquility, and never claimed to be a path to inner peace and serenity. But it gives meaning to your turmoil, and sanctifies your struggle. This is not the easiest path. It means living on the edge of the material and the spiritual. And maybe never finding peace. But it is a real life — true to body and soul.