Exit Ramp: Losing my religion
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
As I put on my tallit that first time, already an adult, I felt angels drape over my shoulders. In that bolt of raw silk purple cloth with gold trim and fringes carefully tied at the four corners, I was wrapped in a mystical cloak of intention and obligation. Prayer was more intense; the space was deeply spiritual. How could a garment do that? Somehow, in making room in my Jewish practice for my feminism, both deepened.
I loved the way the braided fringes felt in my fingers, as I brought them to the page and to my lips during the Shema; or to kiss the Torah.
I loved that when my daughter sat beside me in shul, she would place the edge of the tallit over her own shoulders and snuggle into the sacred space with me. When she became a bat mitzvah, I was so proud as she designed her own tallit and put it on for the first time. I hoped she felt the angels dance around her that day.
There was a time when I felt a tinge of sorrow taking off my tallit and folding it up, placing it in its bag at the end of a prayer service.
But that was before I started losing my religion. My life still moved in the rhythms of Jewish time. Shabbat, chagim. My husband, who traveled extensively, was always home for Friday night dinner. We had guests every Shabbat.
If I’m honest, it was a slow falling away over time.
I don’t feel the soulfulness anymore, the deep connectedness, the transcendence that came from the push and pull of practice and obligation. A lot has changed. A local rabbi describes observance as a ladder we are always climbing; by contrast, I have often thought of the ladder as something we are constantly ascending and descending, as in Jacob’s dream, grappling as we go. But now, I feel like I have lost my footing entirely.
It was my father’s yahrtzeit last week. His spirit seems to hover in these weeks around the anniversary of his death. But this year, reciting Kaddish offered little comfort. Instead of the words I was saying, words my lips know so well, I heard in my head scraps of Leonard Cohen’s verse, in its disturbing resonance: “Magnified, sanctified…vilified, crucified…You want it darker.”
After he had retired, my father used to take pleasure in making the minyan, being one of the first 10 to arrive.
In my rush to arrive at least in time for the first morning Kaddish, if not to be among the first at the minyan, I left my tallit at home.
Maybe it just happened. But maybe it was no coincidence. I took a tallit from the stand and couldn’t help noticing that I don’t feel anything these days when I say the blessing and put the garment over my shoulders. But I haven’t dropped the practice nor many others that define a Jewish life. It’s hard to leave behind what you have taken a lifetime to cultivate, to understand, to make your own. And it’s also hard to live in them authentically when they no longer feel right.
Recently, my husband noticed that in some places my tallit has grown threadbare and the material is beginning to rip. “It’s time for a new tallit!” he said, beaming with an exuberant tone conveying his sense of the myriad spiritual possibilities a new tallit brings.
For a moment I thought about it. I could trade in my purple, gauzy, almost-Indian tallit for something thick and comforting — handmade, spun in Israel or by a local craftsperson, made from wool or cotton or silk. I could try on many and wait for one to whisper, “This one brings holiness.”
But how do you choose a new tallit? What do you look for in trying them on, if they all feel hollow, and you know that none will whisper?
I miss the rich meaning it once offered, and the obligation I no longer feel; yet I cannot imagine letting go altogether. Something keeps me tethered.
Is there a tallit to wear in the spiritual wilderness? And what purpose would it serve? Would it be like a scarlet letter that says you are off the derech, the religious path? But if you’re off the derech, do you find your way back?
Maybe I have wandered into the land ruled by the wicked son, who asks only what do all these rituals mean to you — to you and not to me. If that is where I am, the right option is no tallit at all.
I’d like to think that instead I’m in the land of Leonard Cohen, where the verses rise from your soul but with some new meaning separated from their origin.
In that case, the tallit for this wilderness may be the old one.
To know where we are going we must know where we have been. My purple prayer shawl whispers my history, reaching back generations before my father was trying to make a minyan, but also forward to the moment when I found a piece of myself in its particular silk strands. It tells me where I’ve been and who I am.
Maybe I just need to have a little faith that I will find my way from here, and that when I do, a tallit will be waiting to whisper.