Good Inclinations Gone Wild

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December 1, 2011
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Shani Rosenbaum

Our sages say that while the yetzer ha-ra, evil inclination, enters a person at birth, the yetzer tov, good inclination, comes at the age of bar or bat mitzvah. As children we are primarily concerned with our own needs; as we approach adulthood, we begin to take into account the effects our behavior has on others. This outward-turned perspective is what our sages call the inclination for good.

Now in my final year of college — ten years after receiving my own yetzer tov — I am learning the limits of looking outward, learning to balance the needs of my religious community with my own spiritual health.

As a Conservative rabbi’s daughter, I’ve always been aware of the impact of my religious choices upon my environment. I grew up accustomed to having peers and adults look to my behavior as a model for their own religious lives. Then, just after my bat mitzvah, we moved to a new city. There, I began attending an Orthodox day school. No longer the most observant student in my environment, I found myself keenly aware of the expectations of this new community. The halakhic standards of my Orthodox school were, in many ways, more restrictive than my family’s standards. Teachers scrutinized my skirt and sleeve length, and peers’ Shabbat observance included details I’d never thought of: They disabled refrigerator lights and tore toilet paper before sundown.

Despite the tightening of standards, I found myself drawn to the halakhic outlook of my teachers and peers, especially to its emphasis upon consistency. I found comfort in a defined “halakhic framework” that did not dismiss mitzvot as outdated or ridiculous. I sensed that this framework created something I craved: a true halakhic community. Here, mitzvot were not optional. They were obligations or prohibitions. If everyone was prohibited from driving on Shabbat, nobody went to junior prom instead of Friday night dinner, or to a soccer game instead of services.

There was a rhythm to Jewish life when it took place within an observant community like this — an all-encompassing Jewish universe that echoed the texts I had studied growing up. This, I felt, was Judaism as it was supposed to be practiced. Obligation born of a commitment to consistency created a world of observance that struck me as ideal.

In high school, I gravitated toward consistency. I learned the minutiae of halakhot, and did my best to comply scrupulously. As my halakhic standards tightened, I found myself being absorbed into the Orthodox community. Once again, I was aware of the impact my own religious behavior had on others. But the nature of that impact was more subtle than the role-model attitude of my past. My fastidious halakhic practice functioned both as social capital indicating that I belonged within a particular community and as a reinforcement of the standards I wanted to see maintained within that community — standards that would help maintain the holistic, communal Jewish lifestyle I wanted to live. This, I told myself, was yetzer tov. I was making my decisions based not just upon my own spiritual satisfaction, but upon creating a communal environment where Jewish practice could flourish.

When I entered college, my obsession with religious consistency reached its peak. For the first time, I was presented with a totally peer-driven Jewish community. The standards of practice, the strength of our communal institutions, were not enforced by teachers or rabbis, but by students. Here, religious norms were ours to set and shape.

Modeling myself after older lay leaders, I was convinced that my own religious choices could have a powerful effect upon the zeitgeist of my community. If I showed up to minyan consistently — regardless of whether I counted in that minyan — I contributed to a standard that allowed communal prayer to continue as a daily staple in my school’s Jewish life. If I had seven chevrutot per week, our beit midrash would come alive with a tangible culture of constant learning. Beyond halakhic scrupulousness, I began to treat regular attendance at the public institutions of Jewish life — namely, the synagogue and beit midrash — as an obligation in its own right.

The rhythm of college life, though, does not always align with that of traditional Jewish life. Like many of my peers, I could be up until 3am writing a paper or tending to a friend in need, but I would then leave my dorm room by 7:30 for morning prayers. My grades began to suffer, as did my relationships. I couldn’t focus while praying, was impatient while learning, forgot what it felt like to be attuned to God’s presence in the world. Focusing all my energies outward, trying to model a religious personality that would fit my ideal religious community, I had turned my own practice into a shell of what a religious experience should be.

Last summer, I spent two months in Tel Aviv. It seems ironic that the shift in attitude that would rescue my religious experience took place in Israel’s most secular city. But my time in Tel Aviv was an exercise in taming a yetzer tov gone wild. Unattached to any religious community in particular, I began to make religious choices in nobody’s interest but my own. Some days, I woke up late and — for the first time in years — simply didn’t pray. After a while, I began to feel the absence of prayer in my life. And when I did begin to pray regularly again, the experience was more powerful than it had been in years.

Now, in my final college year, I find myself drifting from extreme experiences toward a middle path. I hope that my enthusiasm for my own halakhic observance continues to be a positive force in shaping the spirit of my community. But this can only be true if my observance also shapes my own spiritual experience for the better. Looking outward toward the needs and reactions of others is indeed a good inclination, but I am learning to temper that inclination with a healthy dose of yetzer ha-ra.

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Shani Rosenbaum is an undergraduate student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Her interest in the intersection of Judaism and social justice has led her to internships at the Jerusalem-based Bema’aglei Tzedek (“Circles of Justice”) and at Hotline for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv.

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