Letter to an Orthodox Burn-out, Expanded

Our first issue featured an abridged version of a longer article by Seth Herstic.  This is the full letter…

Dear Noah,

It was great to see you the other night. It reminded me of the good old days when you and I would sit in the upper deck behind home plate at Shea stadium and scream our lungs out over every bad call and every great play. I really miss those times. It’s amazing how three years of mutual silence towards one another has had no affect on our ability to laugh and converse. We can still have a great time together, and I suppose that’s the mark of true friendship.

Sorry for getting all sentimental on you, but you’re like a brother to me; and at times, the game the other night felt more like a sibling reunion than a Met game. Sure, when we were kids, and even through high school, we spent most of our time playing video games, hitting baseballs, and laughing uncontrollably. To those around us, our friendship looked pretty shallow. But underneath all of that fun and frivolity was an unbreakable bond of dedication and companionship that linked two boys who would have taken bullets to the heart for each other. I would do the same today.

It is because of this connection, this dedication and this brotherhood, that I feel able and permitted to speak to you candidly now.

Noah, we spoke about everything the other night. We spoke about school, work, new movies, old movies, and our most memorable memories. We did imitations of all the teachers from our past and reminisced about all the mischief we used to cause. But there was something we didn’t speak about at all, something we stayed away from as if it was leprous. This topic, which I felt was begging to be discussed and addressed, kept eluding us, and we kept eluding it. The topic I’m referring to is of course the topic of Judaism; more specifically, your Judaism.

I can tell that you and Yiddishkeit are engaged in your own mutual silence at the moment. It’s as if at some point in the last few years you decided that God, Torah, and Am Yisrael ran out of room for you. Alternatively, maybe you were the one who was unaccommodating. Either way, there was a break. A fissure formed between you and the Eternal, and I could see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice last Thursday night.

The practical repercussions of this rift are unknown to me. From what I witnessed at the game, you’re still somewhat halakhic. You were wearing a kippah at the game, you said brachot on your food, and you washed your hands before you ate that hotdog. Maybe you did these things out of respect for me, maybe you didn’t want to disappoint, or maybe you’re actually observant on some level. All of these possibilities seem equally likely.

Whatever the reason, I don’t really care that much. Your numerical reading on the religious barometer doesn’t interest me. I’m much more concerned about where you’re headed on the religious/spiritual map than where you are, and I care much more about what you want out of Judaism than what it has given you.

This preference of mine, call it ‘Destination over Location in Avodat Hashem,’ is not an original one; it is actually a major theme in Tanach and Rabbinic literature. There are numerous sources and sayings that expound upon this idea directly, but there is no need to list them here. To learn this instructive principle, we need only a superficial glance at our sacred Torah. The style of the commandments themselves can reveal this concept.

Many of the mandates in the Torah call upon us to do physical, concrete, and quantifiable duties. For example, the mitzvah of wearing Tefillin requires us to don black straps and boxes. Inside these boxes there must be parchment on which specific portions of the Pentateuch are written. Thus the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Tefillin is clearly within our reach; it’s a mitzvah of specifics and objective requirements. Other examples of such pragmatic mitzvot are Kashrut (the kosher laws) and Sukkah (the obligation to dwell in booths on the holiday of Sukkot). All of these mitzvot are objective, and their fulfillment can be measured and tested with precision.

But there is another category of mitzvot in the Torah which is comprised of mitzvot that are mostly subjective and emotional; which can’t be quantified. This class of divine mandates includes the pillars of Jewish faith and experience: Belief in God, Love of God, Fear of God, Attachment to God, Love of thy Neighbor, and Prayer. One cannot accurately calculate his or her success in any one of these areas. As with faith in general, these mandates break through the bonds of exact classification and definition because of their ability to claim one’s being whole.

Our Torah is not a shopping list. God did not hand us “goals and timetables” at Mount Sinai, nor did he present us with a to-do list. God asked and asks for more than just chores. God asks us to do what cannot be calculated or quantified; He asks us to love Him, fear Him, and love our fellow Jew. And even in the realm of the objective, even in our services that can be measured to some degree, (like Tefillin and hearing the shofar blast) a certain subjective kavanah (intention) is required.

God has also not decreed an end goal or quota. We must wear Tefillin for 6 days a week until we die; no amount of Tefillin-wearing time can exempt one from the duty of this daily adornment. The obligation to study Torah is also a never-ending task. One is commanded to study and contemplate the Torah constantly, and even though there are an objective amount of books to cover in the Torah (the Gemara, the Mishna, the Tanach, etc.) one’s “mastery” of these texts and these texts’ commentaries does not exempt one from his obligation to constantly delve deeper into them and to explore them rigorously.

Thus, our holy task in life engenders in us feelings of despair and comfort. We despair because our work here is never done. We are bidden to do things which cannot be quantified, are therefore driving blind, and must always do our best and always aim for the bigger and better in our service of God. In short, we are asked to struggle endlessly, to grow constantly, to ascend always, and to traverse the infinite paths of God’s Torah. This weighty assignment smashes the prospect of rest and complete contentment in this world.

But at the same time this Divine charge fills us with hope of success. After all, we are only being asked to be ourselves and to reach our own individual potentials in Avodat Hashem, or to at least to put forth our best efforts in our attempts to reach that goal. As a good friend of mine once put it, “We only have to do the next right thing.” In this way God is the antithesis of the educational system. In the world of education there is passing and failing; effort counts for very little. And at school, one’s excellence is dependent upon his peers’ performance. But in God’s system there is no such relativism. In Heaven, man’s excellence is calculated by comparing his realized potential with his unrealized potential, his actual spiritual achievements with his could-have-been spiritual achievements.

Noah, I fear that your Judaism is not one of movement, evolution, ascent, or struggle; I fear that it is a stagnant Judaism, devoid of life and vibrancy. I get the impression that you view the Torah’s vision for you as a stifling and restrictive one, one that will suffocate your individuality and creativity if you fully embrace it. And I also fear that your view of God has been tainted. I imagine that you see the Almighty as a ruthless and nitpicking slave owner, who will punish his slaves (us) for even the most insignificant of wrongdoings. In your mind, you see God holding a whip in one hand and the Books of Life and Death in the other. You fail to see the God who stands with His arms open and ready to embrace His beloved children.

If I’m correct, and your vision of Judaism is so limited, then your perspective of things is similar to that of the model Man of Fate who experiences an existence of Fate, and far from the perspective of the Man of Destiny who lives a life of Destiny.

These two types of men and outlooks were contrasted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”:

What is an existence of fate? It is an existence of duress, in the nature of ‘against your will do you live.’ It is a factual existence, simply one line in a [long] chain of mechanical causality, devoid of significance, direction, purpose, and subordinate to the forces of the environment into whose midst the individual is pushed, unconsulted by Providence. The ‘I’ of fate emerges as an object. As an object, man appears as acted upon and not as an actor. He is acted upon through his passive collision with the objective outside, as one object confronting another. The ‘I’ of fate is hurled into a sealed dynamic that is always turned outward. Man’s existence is hollow, lacking inner content, substance, and independence. The ‘I’ of fate denies itself completely, because the sense of selfhood and objectification cannot dwell in tandem…What is an Existence of Destiny? It is an active existence, when man confronts the environment into which he has been cast with an understanding of his uniqueness and his value, freedom and capacity; without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside world. The slogan of the ‘I’ of destiny is: ‘Against your will you are born, and against your will you die,’ but by your free will do you live. Man is born as an object, but it is within his capability to live as a ‘subject.’ – as a creator and innovator who impresses his individual imprimatur on his life and breaks out of a life of instinctive, automatic behavior into one of creative activity.

Although the Rav does not say it straight out in his essay, I think I am right in assuming that the two types of men who experience these two divergent types of existences approach Avodat Hashem in totally different ways.

For starters, their morning routines differ. The Man of Fate opens his eyes in the morning and lets out a sigh of disappointment and despair. It is the beginning of another day of restrictions, obligations, and fear for him; what does he have to look forward to? He drips out of bed and slimes his way to minyan. He arrives at synagogue a few minutes late, throws on his Tefillin, and then mumbles his way through the prayers. He doesn’t want to talk to God, and he doesn’t want to praise Him, but he will say the words every morning because it is his habit and obligation. He thinks, “I am slave to God; what can I do? If I don’t obey, I will be punished in the next world and feel guilt in this one.”

On the other hand, the Man of Fate might not go to synagogue or consciously keep any commandments. The reason for this could be that he has an aversion to the bleak image of Judaism imprinted upon his mind, and thus distaste for the actual Judaism he sees right in front of him.

The Man of Destiny rises before the dawn and springs out of bed. Full of purpose and joy, he prepares his mind and body to sing praise to his Creator. He understands his mission this day, appreciates his unique role to play, and contemplates how he will leave his signature mark on the moment. He eagerly awaits the sunrise, and when it finally arrives, he pours out his heart to the Almighty in petition and in song. He learns Torah with vigor and sensitivity. He tries to unearth a new gem of wisdom, to produce a chiddush!

In short, the Man of Destiny meets the day with dignity and wonder, thrill and hope, whereas the Man of Fate meets the day with trepidation, sloth, and gloom. In fact, these two men never see things in the same light. Where the Man of Fate sees burden, the Man of Destiny sees opportunity. Where the Man of Fate sees religious shackles, the Man of Destiny sees the keys to life. The Man of Fate wants to escape his Master’s whip, and the Man of Destiny wants to redeem his existence and come near to his Father in heaven.

Both of these men are very human; they both have their struggles and hardships, and they both possess strong inclinations towards evil. But their varied visions of Judaism, and their opposing views of their missions in life, nearly make their existences antithetical.

Allow me to expound upon the expression, “opposing views.” By saying this, I do not mean that one of these men views his life from the Fate perspective and that the other man views his life from the Destiny perspective. On the contrary; both men, at their core, are Men of Fate, with a Vision of Fate and fully know and appreciate this fact. They realize that they were both born against their will as Jews. They know that they have to keep the mitzvot whether they like it or not. They have no choice in the matter. God, in a way, has thrust Himself upon them, and they cannot escape their fate.

But the Man of Destiny does one better. He takes his Judaism to the level of purpose, choice, action, and direction; he builds upon the Fate Vision. Indeed, this act of ascent on the part of the Man of Destiny encapsulates and represents the essence of our task in this world. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik:

According to Judaism, man’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny – an existence that is passive and influenced into an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness into an existence full of will, vision, and initiative…Destiny bestows on man a new status in God’s world. It bestows upon man a royal crown, and thus he becomes God’s partner in the work of creation.

I mentioned earlier that I thought your separation from God, Torah, and Am Yisrael was due to the fact that you view the Torah’s vision for you as a stifling one. I think you feel that if you totally give in to Torah, you will be stripped of your creativity and lose your uniqueness. Well, Noah, if painting pictures of the Crucifixion is your idea of creativity, then yes, embracing the Torah will stifle you. But I’m not talking about art.

Don’t get me wrong, art is obviously a branch of creativity, and artistic expression certainly has a place within the Jewish framework, but when I talk about creativity and individuality in Judaism, I’m not referring to a guitar-playing hippie who designs finger puppets. (Such a hippie could very well be a true-blue Orthodox Jew who views his life through the lens of Destiny, but I’m not concerned with that type of creativity and uniqueness at the moment). I’m talking about a much broader creativity and a more exalted individuality. I’m talking about the concept of every Jew having his own unique role to play in the drama of our people’s history and destiny. I’m talking about how no Jew is superfluous, and how every Jew must use his God-given gifts and holy distinctiveness to hasten the coming of the Messiah . I’m talking about how every man wishes to bring something new into his world, and how this is also God’s wish. I’m talking about chiddushei Torah (new insights into the Torah). I’m talking about how man is a partner with God in the creation of the world. I’m talking about all these things.

Again, I must turn to the words and vision of Rabbi Soloveitchik. In his essay, Lonely Man of Faith, he writes:

There is no doubt that the term ‘image of God’ in the first account [of the creation of man] refers to man’s inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator. Adam the first who was fashioned in the image of God was blessed with great drive for creative activity and immeasurable resources for the realization of this goal, the most outstanding of which is the intelligence…

The entire second half of Halakhic Man, the Rav’s magnum opus, is devoted to the idea of creativity:

Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah. “The Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices in the dialectics of Torah” [a popular folk saying]. Read not here ‘dialectics’ (pilpul) but ‘creative interpretation’ (hiddush). This notion of hiddush, of creative interpretation, is not limited solely to the theoretical domain but extends as well into the practical domain, into the real world. The most fervent desire of halakhic man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakhah, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds. This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals. And if at times we raise the question of the ultimate aim of Judaism, of the telos of the Halakhah in all its multifold aspects and manifestations, we must not disregard the fact that this wondrous spectacle of the creation of worlds is the Jewish people’s eschatological vision, the realization of all its hopes.

[Here the Rav is talking about chiddushei Torah (Torah insights) and the implementation of the ideal halachah into the concrete world. Nevertheless, the passage communicates the message that G-d desires His creations to add to His creation and to complete it. As one of my rebbeim once put it: God, in a way, “hands us the paintbrush.” But creativity in life need not limit itself to Torah study and halachic implementation. By having the courage to engage our distinctiveness and act on our uniqueness, we create ourselves into exactly what God had intended us to be: different. Later on in Halakhic Man, the Rav points out that the creation narrative (as part of our halachah-centered Torah) is an imperative to create, thus fulfilling an aspect of imatio dei]


I suspect that this exalted vision of Avodat Hashem (founded upon the Vision of Destiny and the Call of Creativity) is one that is very foreign to you. This is because you have never met the right people. You have never learned Torah from someone who believed in this brand of Judaism, taught this brand of Judaism, and practiced this brand of Judaism. Not only have you never learned Torah from such a man, but you have never observed such a man in an informal setting, playing with his children, conversing with his wife, laughing with his friends, walking in the park, etc. Observing the mundane actions of a true Jew in a relaxed setting can be extremely educational and inspirational; it may even be more important and spiritually productive than formal Jewish education.

I was fortunate enough to receive this informal Jewish education and this majestic vision of Judaism in Israel, in yeshiva. It was there that I learned a Torah of destiny from men of destiny, and resided, conversed, and relaxed in an environment of destiny. My yeshiva, Lev HaTorah, was one that stressed active, ascending, creative, and vibrant service of God – one of joy, and one that begged of us our uniqueness. We were all encouraged to be ourselves, but to be ourselves within the framework of authentic halakhic Judaism.

Noah, I hate to say it, but I think the only way for you to mend your relationship with God, Torah, your people, and yourself, is to spend some time learning in Israel. I won’t quote any esoteric sources about the powers of the land to prove this to you, nor will I make any claims about the mysterious realms of the soul. All I will tell you is the concrete facts: for whatever reason, be it sociological, economical, or psychological, the Torah educators in Israel are the best in the world, and our homeland’s environment is the most conducive for learning Torah and becoming acquainted with Judaism and holiness. No other country, state, or yeshiva compares.

I remember the old days Noah, the days when you were the first to minyan, and the days when you would sneak peaks at your Pirkei Avot in the middle of history class. There was a time when your Judaism meant something to you, when it touched your heart, when it was alive in you, when you were excited about it. You can’t just give up on it now; it hasn’t given up on you. Like the proverbial Beloved in the Song of Songs, God and Torah still beckon you; still wait for you to open the door to your destiny, not your fate!

I too wait for you to open that door; and I know you can, with God’s help.


Your friend,