Paths to Torah: Truth or Self-Fulfillment?

There are 70 facets of the Torah, and probably as many paths for an individual to get there as a BT. In my life as a second-time BT, I have taken at least two of them.
Very brief background: I’m a Baby Boomer who grew up in a traditional (kosher but not Shomer Shabbat) household. The synagogue we DIDN’T attend, except when we walked there on the High Holidays, was Orthodox. I went away to college at age 16, dropped all semblance of observance, acquired a Gentile boyfriend; then, when he dumped me, I found a non-observant Jewish boyfriend, and when I was 18 and he 20, we got married.

So how did I come to Torah?

My first path to Torah was through the three children we had together. I looked ahead decades and decided I wanted them to have a Jewish identity, that it would bother me very much if they would intermarry. (It wouldn’t have bothered their father at all.) So, this path was basically one of self-fulfillment: I wanted to perpetuate my heritage through my children. G-d helped me, and I succeeded in giving them an authentic Jewish education and raising them as observant Jews. They have remained so, and have raised observant Jewish grandchildren for me.

In the process of their Jewish education, I learned, too. I saw the truth and beauty of Judaism as I learned. Thus, self-fulfillment led to truth and interacted with it.

But life has twists and turns, and my life included a subsequent marriage to another man, a BT, with whom I had three more children. Unfortunately, there was abuse and violence in that marriage, and I raised the children alone for many years, after which they were wrenched from me; more on that momentarily. Fortunately, thank G-d, they all turned out OK (and also observant), and they too have given me observant Jewish grandchildren.

Life as a single mother in an observant community is not the norm, and it affected me deeply. I did not deny the truth of Torah, but I was weak, and the self-fulfillment was now largely missing. Eventually, when I married my present husband (who is non-observant like the first one was, but not quite like that – he IS open to some limited observances), I lost custody of my three younger children, which is a whole story in itself. That really precipitated my “losing my religion”: I basically went off the derech. (Just for the record, yes, each time I was divorced, I did obtain a kosher Get.)

But, because I had that grounding in the truth of the Torah from my first BT experience, it never totally went away. Some of my sins were acts of rebellion, but most were acts of weakness; the Torah distinguishes among different types of sins in those ways.

I kept a “kosher corner” in my kitchen for when my children would come to visit. Gradually I accommodated them in other ways, such as turning the refrigerator light off before Shabbat. And don’t think that didn’t “draw fire” (pun intended) in the household! It’s one of those little things that was big at the time, but which my husband has long since accepted.

I remember, quite clearly, when my daughter – who was probably about 10 or 11 at the time – was davening and wanted me to daven with her. I picked up the Siddur and tried to, but I burst into tears and said I just couldn’t. Too many observant people had hurt me along the way.

It was only after we moved to the Dallas area that I really did start coming back. DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), the local Kollel which offers all kinds of outreach connections, held classes which I began to attend. In a way, with my previous BT background, it was as if I had gone back to kindergarten; but I needed these refresher courses, and most of all, I needed to be accepted in the non-judgmental way DATA so excels at. The warmth and the love of these genuine Torah Jews in Dallas brought me back the second time – and so, here I am, a second-time BT.

That’s just one woman’s personal journey. Can I generalize from it? The Torah is the epitome of truth, and most of us can recognize the honest truth. I think that ability is in our souls. But, it’s also how that truth is presented. Are the people presenting it living in the way that it commands? For most of us, I think there does have to be a self-fulfillment factor. Ultimately we are supposed to follow Torah Lishmah, for its own sake; but meantime we have to utilize factors that are Lo Lishmah, not for its own sake. We need both the spiritual/intellectual satisfaction that comes with the truth of Torah, and the emotional satisfaction of feeling happy and fulfilled, in order for Torah to “stick”.

4 comments on “Paths to Torah: Truth or Self-Fulfillment?

  1. i can’t imagine the pain you have endured — what a story. you are different — we should all merit to be as different as you.

  2. The twists and turns of your story remind me not to be too rigid in my own journey. I always fear that anything but a straight line in my path toward observance is disastrous.

    your final comment about needing happiness and emotional satisfaction to make Torah “stick” was insightful and a good counterpoint to dogged obedience. Thank you.

  3. Phyllis, thanks for sharing this story. I also caught the point about whether those presenting Torah are actually living it. That becomes most relevant when those same people are afforded some degree of control over our lives. But, still, with Torah as our pillar, there is room for growth even from these inconsistencies.

    Glad to hear you found a welcoming kehilla in Dallas. The point about where one fits in has been debated here, and remains key in the successful BT journey. On more than one occasion I have been advised that some of the struggles inherent in living a frum life in the greater NY metro area, are less severe in out-of-town locations.

  4. Phyllis, What an amazing story.

    You make an interesting point that we’ll accept the truth more readily when the person teaching it is living it.

    Rabbi Dessler makes a similiar point in Strive for Truth (vol 1) the Truth Perspective when he points out that our personal biases cloud our understanding of the truth. However, Rabbi Dessler’s more focused on the fact that we must work on ridding ourselves of our biases to see and live the truth of Torah.

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