Finding Our Voice When We’ve Stretched Too Far

By Sara Taub

The question of this post is directed at brave and inquiring minds which let go of attachments to material and professional accomplishments and replace them with goals more eternal. It is among people such as these that I think this question would most likely arise. It is not a particularly convenient question, as it requires courage and honesty to ask. It is probably an unpopular question, because the potential outcome could involve some disharmony and re-adjustment, if only in your internal space. But I think it is an important question to ask and I am curious to know whether any of you ask it of yourselves.

First let me tell you what the question is not. The question is not about mistaken life choices or doubt that they reflect the ultimate truth; the question is not a crisis in belief or a desire to compromise Torah true standards of personal conduct and behavior; the question does not reflect an agenda that would promote self-expression at any cost; and the question is not about the society, with its takanon sanctioned by gedolai hador, in which we have chosen to live.

The question is about fine tuning and it is this:

Does there ever come a time when you have stretched so far outside your comfort zone and self-definition that maintaining your spiritual status-quo or even a slight regression would be an act of avodas Hashem?

Is it fair to say, “I can do no more right now” even when that means that your husband or children will be affected, maybe even negatively? Could you risk shalom bayis for holding your ground and refusing to accommodate a spiritual request?

Is it ever okay to let the neighbors think what they will and to dodge the masses for a while?
Do I render myself unrecognizable to the one that knows me best, namely, me, to accommodate standards generated in a world from which I do not originate, or any world for that matter?

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: A few days ago I met a friend of mine at the Seminar we are both trying to get our girls into. She came dressed in the required costume, wearing a wig she has not put on since her last appearance at the Bais Yaakov. This friend, mind you, is among the holiest rollers I know, with a clarity and devotion that I can only aspire to. Nervous, nauseous, a little resentful, and completely out of her element, the first thing she said to me was exactly what I have been thinking for some time now. “I am constantly being asked to stretch and accommodate way beyond what I am capable of or comfortable with.” And then walked in the menahelet…shalom! Whatever…

And when I challenged her with the possibility that perhaps she should do what it takes to maintain her own equilibrium she said, “No, no matter what, I have to keep trying, even if I die trying.” Further into the conversation she alluded to the fact that for her, the suffering was meaningful because it served as some form of atonement for past misdeeds; that Moshiach was on his way and people today are the bottom of the barrel so it was wise to make torment your faithful companion, as in today’s world, it is in everyone’s repertoire in one form or another.

But it pained me to see that she was, in fact, dying in small ways as each accommodation was sure to be followed by greater, more difficult ones. And as I watched her put on a grin-and-bear-it façade, I had to wonder, does service of G-d require this? Was it, in fact, Torah true?

There are two camps, I presume, that form around this question. One would have you consider the “I” null and void. “I” am a self-fashioned robot, who devotedly follows the path laid out before me by those wiser and more accomplished than me. The other would shout in protest and demand an accounting for the unique and inimitable character that Hashem placed in each one of us. Where are my fingerprints that no other human being can duplicate?

It is difficult to know when to reach in the pocket that carries the note “I am nothing but dust,” and when to reach in the other that hides the message “the world was created for me.” But the two are equally holy, and crumbling up the paper that would require I lay my uniqueness on the altar of accommodation without at least launching an inquiry is, in my humble opinion, cowardice. And my experience has taught me that going into self-imposed exile leaves me alone with a self that makes joy a stranger and wilts the flowers of Simchas HaChayim, Ahavas Hashem, and achdus with Am Yisroel planted in the vineyards I have so carefully and consciously cultivated.

“I did it my way” is not a song that is found on Jewish lips. No one would advocate letting the individual mandate the Godly. But is there room in the spaces of obligation and ritual in the foreign world in which we find ourselves big enough for me? Presented with a demand that would necessitate a metamorphosis of size-able proportions do I even consider what my personal cost would be? What do I weigh that up against and how do I know which is the priority?

Much to my delight and gratitude, my husband came through with an answer to this dilemma that I found both wise and satisfying. He believes that within the robot there is a mechanism for self-regulation; that there is a default mode triggered by crises of this kind which would have you honor the voice that shouts discontent and seek a competent audience in which to vocalize and resolve the tension that it generates (for which he offers his services, of course.) The Torah and our leaders do not shy away from the conflicted – out of the box in which we live, they are divinely endowed with a bird’s eye view that can embrace and set free the complicated and multifaceted creation that is called a human being.

And further, my husband regards it as a duty incumbent on each and every one of us. Belief and service should not mandate that we die a thousand deaths in its name unless we are counseled that that is what we must do. There is room, he believes, for an individual to live within the robot. The wise seek out wise counsel to set the mark and draw the parameters around which he can walk freely, at his own pace and in his own stride.

How would you answer the question?

28 comments on “Finding Our Voice When We’ve Stretched Too Far

  1. The article by Sara Taub cites her “nervous, nauseous” friend as “suffering” and “dying in small ways.” It sounds like there’s a lot more going on than simply stretching out of one’s comfort zone by acting more frum than one feels. Is it a situation where her friend believes that certain unique and innate talents, such as singing and dancing, are crying out to be used, but can’t be, due to frumkeit? I think that we frum women have a lot more outlets for our brains and talents now than we did thirty years ago. For example, there are a number of very good women’s-only theatrical groups which allow frum women to express their artistic and creative sides.

    Perhaps Sara Taub’s friend found her individuality challenged by this constant demand that she conform to some very narrow norms of behavior and dress; otherwise, her children will be rejected from the schools that are best for them. If she dressed and acted the way she felt most comfortable, it would compromise her children’s futures. Of course that’s a very tough situation to be in, pretending to be what you’re not for the sake of the kids. I do wonder, however, precisely why putting on a sheitel (it’s only a wig, after all, and a lot of women wear wigs) could make someone ill to the point of getting physically sick. Is there something going on psychologically in her friend’s head, where she’s getting all worked up about this, basically “awfulizing” the whole experience of dressing Chareidi?

  2. Ora, you make some excellent points. I guess I could rephrase the question as: might something be good for a child who is growing up frum and not as good for a parent who didn’t grow up frum?

  3. David – I think it’s possible, but I’d guess that it’s rare.

    It’s one thing for a child to be taught things that they don’t see at home, for example to be told about the importance of davening three times a day if their own father doesn’t. That’s already a bit risky, since the child might disbelieve his teacher (for contradicting his father’s way of doing things) or resent his father (for expecting the son to do something that he himself doesn’t do).

    But it can still work if the parent believes that what the school is teaching is the best way, and is honest about their own life. As in, “Your teacher is right, davening is very important. It’s something I struggle with.”

    And if the teachers understand who their students are, and aren’t expecting/requiring them to be different from their parents observance-wise.

    But if the school is actually making the parent do things they’re not comfortable with, that means that kind of honesty can’t happen. The mother can’t say, “Yes, wearing a sheitel should be required, I’m just not ready yet,” because she can’t admit to not being ready yet. And the teachers don’t understand where the student and her family are really coming from, and might push the kids more than is reasonable.

    It’s not that it’s doomed to fail, it just seems risky.

    There’s also the question – what if the parent only thinks that’s the best approach? How would you know without trying it yourself? Eg, parents who lie about having internet at home because they think the school that wants them to not have it is better – if you’ve never cut off from modern media yourself, how would you know if teaching your child to do it is the right thing?

  4. To Ora #23: Thanks so much for really understanding what I was trying to say. I truly admire honest, open intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, with its connection to passionate religious Zionism and in integrating “Torah U’Mada” and the principles of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch into the life of a Jew in the challenging world of the secular 21st century. What I deplore is when lack of effort and lack of knowledge are turned into an acceptable lifestyle, similar to what Conservative Judaism did in the 1950s when they allowed suburban congregants to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath.

    There is a big difference between the family buying furniture during the Nine Days who says, “It was a tremendous bargain, we really needed the new couch as the old one was broken, so we asked Rabbi ZYX who paskened that it was OK as long as we bought it before the seventh of Av,” and the family buying furniture during the Nine Days who shrugs and says,”We’re not that religious.”

    IMHO, there is a difference between the Modern Orthodox person who holds by a more liberal Modern Orthodox rav and a more liberal interpretation of the halachah, and the self-described Modern Orthodox person who has no rav and no guidance.

  5. There is often a difference between doing something that makes you uncomfortable for someone else’s benefit and doing it just to fit in. Isn’t it possible that the best school for a child is also a place that makes a parent feel uncomfortable?

  6. It seems that a lot of kiruv groups are hareidi, maybe that’s part of why many BTs end up hareidi?

    I think there’s also a tendency at the beginning to compensate for ignorance by doing things the 100% definitely OK way. Like, buying only the “best” heksher not because you know what the difference is, but because if Rav X says heksher X is fine but Rav Y doesn’t, and both Rav Y and Rav X say Y is fine, you go with the two rabbis over the one. That I could see leading to the hareidi community in the beginning stages.

    But even without that, I think it makes sense that a certain number of BTs will be attracted to the hareidi world. Each frum community has its ups and downs, and some will find the hareidi “ups” more enticing than the MO “ups” even if it’s a bigger change to make.

    I don’t think what Judy said was offensive. Of course MO life is not all about saying “I’m not that religious.” But the MO community is a big one and it does include some people who feel that way (which I think is a sign of MO inclusivity – a good thing – not of any problem with the MO ideology).

    Where I disagree with Judy is in thinking that mindset drives BTs away. Sure, if a BT only met MO people in that “not that religious” subgroup they might turn to the hareidi world, but on the other hand, there are many people who are attracted to that, who wouldn’t identify as frum if doing so meant doing things like covering hair and checking strawberries on top of keeping Shabbat and kashrut.

  7. I don’t understand why people make themselves uncomfortable in order to get their kids into a certain school. If the school is making you feel stifled at the very first meeting, doesn’t it seem likely that your child will feel stifled as well?

    I guess some people hope that it’s only stifling for them because of their background, but that their children will find it easy if raised with it. That strikes me as risky. Pushing your children ahead of you can backfire just like pushing yourself too far can backfire.

    And yeah, pushing yourself too far can backfire, so sometimes saying “I can’t do this just yet” is best for everyone.

  8. Our past experiences make us who we are so we can use those experiences (positive & negative) as tools for growth. HKBH only judges us according to our abilities so why feel we have to live up to someone else’s standard? Is it a race? Who’s keeping score? I must have been absent the day they taught “robotics” in BT school.

    Klal Yisrael is an orchestra; we need all the different instruments in order to make beautiful music. But it only works if we are all playing the same song.

  9. So what if you are in too deep, and you’ve built your family in a certain religious milieu that has been nourishing for them and has built beautiful people but that you, personally, cannot find your voice in? Is it okay to “hide out” until they are safely on their way and then come out to find yourself in the larger religious world?

    Will they be able to tolerate the shifting identity of their mother? After all, it is not the torah-essence of the Mother that changes, it is just the social sphere in which she operates that might be foreign to them.

    Will they understand that what was right for them was not necessarily ideal for her? And that, having planted them in an environment she felt was most conducive to their ultimate success, was not one that led to her ultimate self-realization?

  10. Judy:
    My goal was to respond to the question posed by Ben David #9, as to why so many BT’s skip over modern Orthodoxy even though they might be more comfortable in that setting as opposed to chareidism.
    – – – – – – – – – –
    … and your answer both confirms and encapsulates that elitist misinformation fed to BTs – and swallowed by many, for their own psychological reasons.

    In both Israel and the US, “modern Orthodoxy” encompasses the mainstream of Torah-true Judaism, upholding and building on the teachings of Rav SR Hirsch, Rav Soleveitchik, and others… and in topic after topic (parnassah, humrot, relation to secular learning, children’s education) it’s clear that this mainstream approach has much to recommend it to all Torah Jews, but *especially* to BTs – who come “built in” with secular educations, nontraditional families, and other “baggage” that is better handled from the Hirschian or other mainstream approaches.

    Instead, many BTs are encouraged to throw over their previous identities and “play dress up” in the Haredi world – and many BTs go along, often for no other reason than because Haredi elitism and triumphalism resonate with their own narcissism or need for escape/certainty.

    And then 20 years later we get articles like this about people feeling “stretched”…

    well, yeah: playing dress up – and denying your true self and history – for 20 years is a heckuva burden… and by then you know enough about yiddishkeit to maybe realize that the stylistic/cultural/financial burdens of the frum world had little to do with your avodas Hashem – and may have kept you from doing what you were put here to do…


    It’s a particularly ironic tack to take – since the Haredi world’s previous hubris in dismissing modernity probably caused the BT’s grandparents to give up on Judaism in the first place…

    Dear BT: maybe Hashem actually KNEW what he was doing when He had you go to college and learn about the larger world before becoming frum… maybe there are insights you’re supposed to *bring* to the Torah community, Maybe there are people you’re not supposed to slam the door on, but bridge to.

    Maybe you’re supposed to serve Hashem as you, in your time and place – instead of playing dress up.

    And maybe the mainstream orthodox community provides both the intellectual underpinning and social environment for just that kind of contemporary Torah-true life.

    Just maybe…

  11. If I can quote Mrs. Whatsit (A Wrinkle In Time, for those who don’t remember):

    You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.

  12. To Shmuel #16: My goal was to respond to the question posed by Ben David #9, as to why so many BT’s skip over modern Orthodoxy even though they might be more comfortable in that setting as opposed to chareidism.

    Let me make it clear that I’m not slandering either the Modern Orthodox people or the Modern Orthodox movement. What I am decrying is a neat little excuse all tied up with a ribbon.

    The original article talked about people and their comfort zones, and the searing pain of stretching out of one’s comfort zone to satisfy others. Neat little excuses allow people to be dishonest to themselves about where they are holding and what they can achieve.

  13. “I’m not that religious” is of course no excuse for committing a sin such as being motzi la’az on a whole broad and diverse community of Jews. But it might be worth thinking about as an explanation for such behavior.

  14. Sara, a beautiful piece and a brilliant question. I think it’s really sad to get to a point in your growth where you feel it necessary to put on a show that isn’t really you, and worse still, feel that it’s a necessary way to atone for the past. That sounds like it’s coming from a place of guilt, not real internal growth where the entirety of the person becomes ‘higher’ so to speak. If on the other hand, you’re saying this person is spiritually very high, then maybe she is trying to fit in visually into a community that doesn’t suit her. Maybe it suits her husband and she is struggling to balance that.

    The tragic part for me in all this is that of their children. Children smell fear and dishonesty from a mile away. No matter how much you can ‘dress up’ to be accepted into the right school, the child knows that you are playing dress-ups. The effect that this will ultimately have could be disastrous, and while you might be able to excuse it in your own mind (i.e. I deserve it), the child will just see a religion of externalities, not true internal devotion that is complimented and brought out through externals.

  15. Please understand Steve, I am not against sincere honest Modern Orthodoxy, with its positive outlook toward Torah UMadda and religious Zionism. What I deplore are the excuses for not being more religious, or even worse, for not knowing or not learning more.

  16. Judy Resnick-After all the terrible scenes in Meah Shearim and Ramot Beit Shemesh, acting as a judge on the level of a Jew’s committment,which even may not be of an optimal nature, strikes me IMO as unwarranted zealousness (see Netziv on this week’s Parsha re Yaakov’s critique of Levi and Shimon) and the self appointed role of HaShem’s Cossack. Many BTs find MO a very deep and profound way of combining Dikduk BMitzvos, Kvias Itim BaTorah and a very deep sense of commitment to Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. MO is not a Howard Johnson’s lowest common denominator version of Torah observance. IMO, such comments are predicated on stereotypes and urban myths that do not aid in a positive discussion.

    FWIW,while many MO elementary schools are coed, many MO junior high and high schools are separate gender, and many MO cannot be charged with the lapses in Halacha which IMO, are phrased in a judgmental manner.

  17. IMHO, the reason why BT’s tend to skip over Modern Orthodoxy is, with all due respect, the lack of honesty about why one does not do certain things. It becomes “one explanation fits all.”

    “Why did you decide not to cover your hair after marriage?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why do you go mixed swimming?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why do you eat fresh strawberries without bug checking?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why don’t you replace your torn and broken Tzitzis threads?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why don’t you fast on Tzom Gedaliah?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why do you send your son to an expensive mixed day school instead of a cheaper boys’ yeshiva?” “I’m not that religious.”

    “Why did you purchase new furniture during the Nine Days?” “I’m not that religious.”

    I’m not trying to be judgmental here or putting anyone down. There could be very good reasons why people do (or don’t do) certain things. For instance, the mixed day school might have a secular education department far superior to the boys’ yeshiva. Or someone might not fast on the minor fast days due to a medical condition, such as elevated blood sugar levels or severe headaches

    I just personally as a BT find the “I’m not that religious” explanation given by many Modern Orthodox to be disturbing and personally dishonest. Frankly, I believe it’s used too often as an excuse for not wanting to put in the effort to learn the halacha and/or to do what the halacha requires.

    People have to observe at their own comfort level, I know, but it’s just too easy to dismiss something that one should be doing as being “too Orthodox.” BT’s who are in the process of rejecting exactly that kind of situation are not going to settle for a life of constant excuses.

  18. IMHO, the problem arises from not having a wonderful, patient and understanding mentor (i.e., a saint aside from being a sage) who combines the Torah knowledge of Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal with the caring kindness of Rivka Imeinu. It’s nearly impossible to find such a person in real life. However, having such a mentor means that you get the straight halachah (no chumra) plus the practical down-to-earth solution of how to make it work in real life, meaning in your own real life as opposed to anyone else’s. For example, an invite to a nonreligious family wedding, a mentor who can tell you accurately what you have to do and wisely how to do it without needlessly infuriating the relatives. Much of the unhappiness that this posting describes comes from being told what to do without any helpful information as to how to carry it out. (In my field of work, we describe this as enacting a statute but lacking the implementing regulations).

  19. Ben David touched on an important issue:

    The BT makes a major life decision in affiliating with a given stream in Orthodoxy. The decision is often made with inadequate information about the alternative chosen and about all the other Orthodox alternatives. Once made, the decision puts the BT into a particular environment (community, shul, schools, maybe job…). The upshot is that, while it may be really hard to fit in where one now is, it’s also really hard to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. This locked-in-ness can make a person feel really powerless. The situation is mitigated a little if any acceptable alternatives are present nearby.

  20. I immediately connect this post to the following comment on the “How to Make Kiruv Better” thread:

    Be honest with the BT about the range of Orthodox halachic opinions on a given issue and do not present one way of doing things as “the way” unless it is something that is truly accepted as straight halacha across the board, from YCT to Meah Shearim.

    Be honest about distinguishing between chumra, minhag and halacha.

    If the BT is a woman, and you decide to set her up with another woman to study, make sure the latter actually has some idea of the above distinctions and is not going to be presenting her own family’s combination of psakim+minhagim+chumrot as “the” halacha. Such conflation seems to be more of a problem among frum women.

    Don’t be snarky about other streams of Judaism, including non-Orthodox ones. You can and should explain why certain positions and/or people are wrong, but do so in a respectful tone and manner. Flippant remarks, smirking, and sarcasm can be big turnoffs to an idealistic BT who is looking to you as the prime example of a “religious” person. And even if the BT isn’t turned off, he may pick up the same tendency, making him likely to unnecessarily alienate non-BT friends and family from both himself and Orthodoxy.
    – – – – – – – – – – – –

    … so the first step is not deciding whether “the robot can regulate himself” – a rather objectionable description of religious life! – but to clarify if what’s driving you crazy is even commanded by Hashem – or if it’s just minhag or cultural expectations.

    I have posted before about my bewilderment that so many BTs skip over the “modern” or “mainstream” Orthodox world – in which they would be more “comfortable” – and gravitate to the Haredi world, which demands them to “extend beyond their comfort zone” in so many matters of daily life and culture.

    Much of the difference has little to do with Torah or Halachah – and my impression is that most BTs are not made aware of that, as in the comment I quoted.

    I also think the attraction of “playing dress up” in the Haredi world can stem from unhealthy aspects of some BT experience.

  21. “Does there ever come a time when you have stretched so far outside your comfort zone and self-definition that maintaining your spiritual status-quo or even a slight regression would be an act of avodas Hashem?”

    Things move in stages. After a battle is won, time needs to be taken to secure the objective.

    Some of the concepts here apply also to our own personal war against the Yetzer Hara, apathy, etc.:

    An excerpt:
    Phases of Air Assault Operations

    Air assault operations are conducted in four phases: setting the condition, seizing the objective, expanding the lodgment, and preparing for future operations.

    Setting the conditions. In this phase of the operation, the brigade or division focus is on ensuring that conditions are set to provide the highest probability of success. Prime targets during this phase are enemy air defenses, artillery, armor, and concentrations of infantry.

    Seizing the objective. During this phase, combat arms troops seize and secure the objective. A forward logistics element may support the forward task force until the brigade support area can be established.

    Expanding the lodgment. In this phase, combat arms troops continue to expand and secure the area surrounding the objective. The GAC moves forward and establishes the forward operating base.

    Preparing for future operations. During this phase, the task force, which has closed on the forward operating base, builds combat power for future operations. Then the cycle begins again.

  22. Such an interesting question and well framed.

    First things first: make sure you are not suffering from clinical depression, thyroid problems, anxiety – something which may be affecting you deeply but manifests as exhaustion or cloudy thinking.

    Second: there is no question that different communities have different qualities.

    It actually sounds to me like the community you are living in is wearing you down. Sometimes “breaking up” with a community, and choosing another (Torah living) community can make all the difference.

    You come close to sounding like an abused spouse – blaming yourself, your own “inadequacy.” But remember: your feelings might go away in a different community.

  23. Very beautifully written. Loosing oneself in the process of becoming frum was part of what turned me off. I couldn’t find myself again while practicing. I think I went farther into it than even the writer above is feeling. Having several years away from it all, the headspace and emotional space to find myself, I think I could better integrate myself with Torah now. But its a much slower process. Maybe it would be good advice to people to not give up a part of themselves, until they’ve found the way to integrate it – instead of dropping anything about themselves that seems like it might be dangerous to their growth in mitzvahs as soon as they can.

  24. The initial question is:
    Does there ever come a time when you have stretched so far outside your comfort zone and self-definition that maintaining your spiritual status-quo or even a slight regression would be an act of avodas Hashem?

    This, should be our comment focus.

    The was a time when I was working for a kiruv organization and the standard dresscode was “white shirt/black suit jacket”. It wasn’t me, but I felt it was part of the gig. After leaving that career, it took me (with the urging of my wife) to start putting some color into my closet. For a long time, I was all for not using the exteral to show my individuality, but in the end I felt I could be as much of a Torah Jew without wear a white shirt 24/7.

    I see with my own daughter and her classmates that wear uniforms…they thirtst for any ounce of identity via their footwear and funky tights. I am very pro-uniform, but also hope and daven that my kids have their own sense of self.

  25. Very thought provoking post (which I read 3 times, Ross).

    Fighting the yetzer hora of losing what makes YOU who you are is difficult. I don’t, however, think that Hashem wants us to become martyrs.

    The mishna in Pirkei Avos (Avos 2:3) says: Make His will your will, so that He should make your will as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.

    What we want and and what Hashem wants should be the same. Being a robot means you have no choice and things are automatic (Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l uses the term “robot” also).

    Figuring out who you are in relation to your Avodas Hashem is a challenge.
    I have found the sefer DA ES ATZMECHA translated into English as GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF to be helpful:

  26. I didn’t understand a word of this post, which has nothing to do with the author. I have no doubt it’s a great post and people will think deeply into it and come up with great responses. I’m a very shallow person. Things like this whiz right by me. For me and only me personally, I think this is what keeps me going. If it burns my brain cells, I must turn it off. I won’t even try to follow the responses. I’ll wait for the next train.

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