When you have experienced clinical depression and risen from the depths to see daylight again, after many, many years in the darkness, you find yourself a ‘specialist’ in the field of clinical depression. I’m not saying that the experience gives you the academic knowledge of a consultant psychiatrist but you do gain deep insight and understanding of the dynamics. The sinking into the mire, the deepening darkness, the inability to connect with the outside world and the eventual emergence into the light, you can finally look back and see what was happening.
That paragraph flows so naturally into my thoughts on religion, particularly, I guess, my own experience. Ultimately, religion, whilst it’s a command, ‘rules and regs’ theocratic environment, it’s also a personal thing (I’m not sure how religious people reconcile those aspects, the rules with the personal interpretation of God).
In 2001, February 7, to be precise, I hit my rock bottom (I say ‘my’ rock bottom because ‘rock bottom’ is a relative and, again, personal term). For many years previous to that date, I had been sinking further and further into a sea of clinical depression and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I was on the sea bed for a while and then I started to rise….after a while, the blackness of the depths started to lift, the light above the surface came into view and eventually I rose above the surface.
Now, from my vantage point, looking back over a long journey, from light (relative to my depths) into the darkness and out again, and particularly in view of the ‘fact’ that clinical depressives, even though they can, and thankfully often do, ‘recover’, they are always depressives, I have an empathy with sufferers, I understand the illness, I understand the dynamic.
It only dawned on me when I recently read Christopher Hitchen’s “God Is Not Great”, and it hit me square between the eyes when I read Prof. Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, that my journey from non-observant Jew to observant Jew to where I am now is 100% connected to the black dog of depression and the OCD (in case I forget, I’ll now just throw in a warning statement of the obvious: religion and OCD, NOT great bedfellows!!).
There was no ‘epiphany’ (I’m not sure if that is an appropriate word in the circumstances) moment, no soft godly wind flowing overheard nor a heavenly thunderbolt striking me. Before I married my wife in 1997, though always aware of my Jewishness, I was, to all intents and purposes, completely irreligious, only my Yom Tov shul visits outwardly evidencing the fact of my being Jewish. My wife, even though brought up in a non-observant, ‘traditional’, home, she thought my love of McDonald’s cheese burgers a ‘bit much’. So, she fired the starting pistol and the marathon commenced….Kosher food, tefillin….and then I stepped it up, shomer Shabbat, tzisis….OCD by my side, blinkers on, complete faith in God….
This all coincided with the last lap to hell, the inside straight to 7 February 2001 when I collapsed, my body, under the onslaught of mental illness and medication, gave up and I went into cardiac arrest. In the run-up to that collapse, my clinical depression was getting worse and worse. I was hardly leaving the house, I was sleeping during the day and only getting up at night when everyone was asleep. None of that stopped me going to Shul (the Synagogue), though. Nowhere was I more comfortable, nowhere was I more at rest, than in Shul. I felt safe, cosseted, protected when I was in Shul. I honestly felt that I was in God’s hands. I remember, on one particular Shabbos (Shabbat/Sabbath), the service was over, the congregation was in the Kiddush hall, shmoozing and drinking, I stayed back, I sat in Shul on my own, tears in my eyes, I felt so at peace that I didn’t want to leave.
It’s ironic, now, when I look back, that contrary to what I felt at the time, that the fog only cleared when I was in Shul, that that was when I was most deluded, that that was when there was the widest gap between reality and fantasy. I have no empirical evidence to support what I’m going to ‘say’ now but it’s my guess that a large percentage of Ba’al Teshuvas (‘born again’ Jews) have some dark places and painful times in their past, that they can trace their ‘rebirth’ back to those times and places. When I see an ‘obvious’ Ba’al Teshuvah in Shul, someone who is really high on prayer and in the adulation of God, I do wonder what dark places they inhabited before their emergence (of course, many of those people are still in their dark places but they block it out with the aid of their godly blinkers).
My faith, of course, as I’m sure often happens when people recover from major illness and ‘close calls’, my faith deepened when I came round from my induced coma. I remember saying to my parents that God saved me (and that I owed him my allegiance, my life) – they said that the doctors saved me and, of course, they, and the wonderful nurses, did save me but, in my mind, all of that was thanks to God – God gave the doctors and nurses, I believed, the ability to save me. Text book! I was in deep…
I can trace the start of my drift, the crisis of faith, to 2012, when we made Aliyah (not uncommon amongst Olim Chadashim, ‘New Immigrants’ to Israel). I remember the prescient words/warning of one of my previous Rabbis, the day before we made Aliyah: “Stay frum (religious/observant)” – he knows what can, and does, happen. Of course, many Olim experience the opposite, they become more religious, they really soak it up but, though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I started to lose it the day we arrived.
Over time, my love of Judaism, or rather of the practise and rituals, was overtaken by resentment, a sense of drudgery. As opposed to putting on tefillin and davening joyfully, instead of enjoying Shabbos, I became angry, angry that I ‘had to’ do it. I was fighting with myself, telling myself that even though I didn’t want to do things, I had to do them, telling myself that I must not do things that I want to do.
OCD, fear, superstition, habit, setting a ‘good example’ to the children (consistency, consistency, consistency), needing to belong….it was all in play.
I refer to ‘fear’ – ‘fear’ of what?
Fear of so much: fear of being wrong, fear of upsetting God, fear of angering God (it used to be about loving God but that ceased to be the motivation a long time ago);
Fear of punishment from God;
Fear of losing God, not having him by my side;
Fear of setting a bad example to my children;
Fear of what would become of my life if I let go;
Fear of being socially/communally ostracised;
Fear of being alone in a godless wilderness.
All, of course, utterly bonkers!
It’s a journey. Some months ago, I blogged on my crisis of faith:
As often happens when a marriage is on the rocks, the couple separates, they get back together again, they try to work things out but, oft times, the couple decides, in the end, to divorce.
This has been a difficult journey, fraught with fear, a fire stoked by my OCD and superstition. It can’t just be a simple, unemotional case of “We’ll, it has been great but it’s over so bye….” I have been in this mental and physical place, a believer, for a long time and even though I have wanted to get away, it has been a case of easier said that done. My religion and religious identity has been inextricably intertwined with my life. Walking around without a kippah on my head now (I still wear one when respect demands it), that has felt weird – I feel naked! I used to wear one even when I went to football matches in England!!
The journey is far from over but I have passed some of the decision-making stages and one of them is probably the most important one:
I am not a theist any more.
Theists believe that a supernatural being created the world AND is concerned with humanity, interacts with us, tells us what we can and can’t do, makes the laws, punishes, forgives, that he is a superintendent.
I have spoken on the subject to a lot of people over the last 12 months or rather I have been taken to task by many people over my questioning and crisis of faith. People told me that I had too simplistic a concept of God in my mind, that when I asked, in response to natural disasters and murderous abominations, “Where is God”, I was not looking at him (God) in the right way, that we simply don’t understand the workings of the great man and he works in mysterious ways bla bla bla (everything I used to say to myself and others!!). I’m surrounded by people who say that I shouldn’t blame God when bad things happen, that it’s not his fault. Hmmmm….these same people thank God when great things happen but when bad things happen, they say it’s not God’s fault. God is on a win win track there! Oddly, many of the same people around me say that God is out there but that he doesn’t get involved with us on a day to day basis, that he steps back, gives us free-will and lets us get on with it (but, as I said, they thank him when good things happen!). That, as I understand it, is not the God of the three monotheistic religions. It seems to me that many Jews are actually deists, not theists.
Deists believe that a supernatural being created the world but that he is not concerned with humanity, that he does not govern, that he is not a superintendent.
How do Jews, and followers of the other monotheistic religions, who profess to have faith, to believe in God, who regard themselves as being ‘good Jews’, Christians or Muslims, in the eyes of God, how do they reconcile that with their deism? If there is a deistic god, he did not talk to Moshe/Moses via a burning bush, he did not command Avrahom/Abraham to kill his son, Yitzhok/Isaac, nor, for the seemingly small sin of turning round to look at the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah, did he turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt.
I have moved on from the idea of God as a theistic being. I don’t, however, know where I am in terms of other definitions and understandings of God. I might be a deist but I doubt it very much. I am too turned on by science. I might be a pantheist.
Pantheists see ‘God’ in nature – to pantheists, God (NOT supernatural – that’s the big difference) and nature are interchangeable nouns. Pantheists see the immense wonder and beauty in nature (and the destructive power and force of nature) and see an inexplicable, mentally indigestible, power, a ‘god’, in it.
I do marvel at our planet, at nature, I do have ‘religious’ experiences when I listen to some pieces of music, I have a sense of the spiritual when I see my family, when I feel love, I guess that I do have a spiritual connection to life – I believe that there could well be an inexplicable, conceptually indigestible, power behind the planet and life though the fact that so much goes wrong, for example, kids getting cancer, that would mean that the pantheistic god is fallible and that renders the ‘god’ title pointless.
I guess, because I haven’t decided where I stand on the God question, I am, by definition, an agnostic but I do know that I’m not a theist and that is the important and crucial decision I have made on this journey. It means that I can, when I have fully managed to disengage my superstition and OCD, freed myself from the rituals, from the self-chastisement and flagellation, from the masochistic devotion and deference to a supernatural being, to Big Brother, who I thought was watching my every move, who I thought knew my every thought, when I have made the breaks, I’ll be ‘free’. That’s another oddity in the madness. A pal of mine told me the other day that I should go through the motions anyway, that if there is a God (a theistic one), it’ll be just as well that I remained faithful and that if there is not, what the heck, what did I lose by staying the course? Hey, if God can read my thoughts, he must know that I don’t believe so what is the point of bowing down, particularly if I’m only doing it to cover all the bases, if I’m only doing it as a matter of self-preservation? He ain’t going to like that – no rewards for that behaviour! Moreover, belief is something you have or you don’t have – you can’t force it. There’s no point in bowing down if the belief isn’t there and if it isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do about it.
I drew a parallel with divorce, the break from God. Another similarity is the surreal feeling. It’s not easy losing the comfort of your surroundings. Until 2012, I was happy with God. I now know that he was a crutch, my comfort blanket. The big fears and concerns, the wellbeing of my family, death, all the big concerns and fears, they bore down heavy upon me but I had God with me so I ‘knew’ that, ultimately, all would be ok. I guess that is what the ultra-orthodox Jews thought when they had just dug their own graves, were standing, naked, with nazi guns pointed at their heads and hearts, as they said the Shema for the last time. I guess that is how comfortable the poor Sassoon family felt when they went to bed on that Friday night after enjoying a Shabbos meal in their Brooklyn home, their Shabbos hotplate plugged in which must have made God happy….fact: if they had not been shomer Shabbos (kept the laws of Shabbat), if they hadn’t bothered with the hotplate, they would not have perished in that Shabbos fire, Mr. Sassoon would not have lost his wife and children. Remember Raizy and Nathan Glauber, both 21 years old, ultra orthodox, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Looking forward to the birth of their first child, in a taxi on the way to see the doctor, car crash, Raizy and Nathan were killed, the baby was delivered prematurely, was taken to hospital but died shortly afterwards. Was God looking after their wellbeing? Nope!
(note: in the news report, the baby was still alive but he did not survive)
The legend, George Carlin:
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man – living in the sky – who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and forever ’til the end of time…But He loves you!*
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”*
It’s not easy for me to come to terms with the fact that I am, in relation to the faith I used to have, on my own, that when I die, that’ll be it, an eternity of nothingness, but there’s no point in me worrying about it because there’s nothing I can do about it. Davening 24/7 won’t change a thing. The wonderful flipside is that I now know that as this is it, as there’s no grand plan, as I don’t have a destiny, as my future is in MY hands, I had better get on with living – no next world, this is it! That is exciting, that is so liberating!
Douglas Adams, he of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” fame, put it very succinctly – this is how I feel:
“And I thought and thought and thought. But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.”*
The American comic actor, Julia Sweeney:
“…as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realised there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, ‘There is no god.’
And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. ‘There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god.’…
And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.
And then I thought,’But I can’t. I don’t know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history’…
‘But I don’t know how not to believe in God. I don’t know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?’ I felt unbalanced…
I thought, ‘Okay, calm down. Let’s just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.’ And I put them on and I looked around.
I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, ‘Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky” You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!’ I wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands.
And then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.’*
I suddenly see a much bigger world out there than I used to, bigger than the one I saw when I was wearing my blinkers. It really is refreshing and liberating to be a free-thinker and to read the thoughts of other free-thinkers, people not constrained by faith. It’s exciting, a world I haven’t seen as an adult.
Bertrand Russell, from his 1925 essay, ‘What I Believe’:
“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanising myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”*
Prof. Richard Dawkins:
“There is more than just grandeur in this (Russell’s) view of life, bleak and cold though it can seem from under the security blanket of ignorance. There is deep refreshment to be had from standing up and facing straight into the strong keen wind of understanding: Yeats’s ‘Winds*
I do believe that religion, when the followers believe in a theistic god, is one of the roots of evil.
Sam Harris, in his The End of Faith:
“The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilisation is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”*
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”
However, without God, I’m still ok with my Judaism:
“…of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.”*
Sad really, though – I had the most wonderful childhood, ‘traditional’ Judaism, I wasn’t brainwashed by my parents, I wasn’t bombarded by “God said you must” and “God said you can’t”, I wasn’t fed creationism …my kids, though not subjected to an ultra-orthodox upbringing, they haven’t had the freedom I had, they have been religiously restricted. The children are in Jewish school but not ultra-orthodox so they also get a good secular education. I do, however, feel guilty for foisting religious restrictions on them, for denying them the freedom I enjoyed.
So, for now, I’ll read more, think more, with an open and receptive mind. The difficulty will be the continued attempt to get away from superstition, habit and the obsessive, compulsive behaviour. Why do I keep saying “Please God”? Why do I keep kissing the Mezuzahs? “Why do I still say “God Forbid”? – learnt behaviour, habit, fear, superstition, doubt, “just in case…”
I’m in a state of flux, yes, it’s not easy, that’s for sure, but it is, as I’ve said, liberating and exciting. I feel more ‘me’ than I have felt for a long, long time. It’ll take self-discipline on my part and hard work. I must not allow my OCD to push me into throwing the baby out with the bath water. The problem for people with OCD is that we find it hard to achieve a balance in what we do, we don’t know how to do things by half. I still want to live within a traditional Jewish framework, I still want the social and cultural traditions to be part of my family life infrastructure.
I must never lose sight of the fact that this is my thinking, that it is not where my wife is mentally – I remember when we were both becoming more religious, I ‘overtook’ her and I had to allow her to move forward at her own pace. In the same vein, I mustn’t drag her ‘backwards’ or thrust my new lifestyle and thinking onto her. I must also go easy on the children, not confuse and befuddle them, particularly our youngest, who is 8 years old. He’ll find change difficult to understand – if what we have been doing is right, as I said it was, how can it be right to now do what I said was wrong.
I’m still Shomer Shabbos and, as of now, I don’t see that changing. Perhaps Shabbos will be for me a cultural anchor, one of my mainstays but who knows?
Interesting and exciting times ahead….
*as quoted in Prof. Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”.