Recently, my family engaged in a lively debate around Izzy’s Shabbos table. I didn’t stop the debate, mainly because it wasn’t my Shabbos table. Had I been the hostess, I would have felt entitled to end an activity I don’t enjoy. From my experience, debating can get ugly (fortunately, it didn’t this time) and more importantly, nobody’s opinion changes in the process (I confirmed that nobody’s did this time either).
“Where do people get their opinions?” Izzy asked me as an aside while my sister-in-law Wendy debated Israeli politics with our son-in-law Benyomin.
“Mostly from their parents, then peer pressure and rationalization kick in,” I answered, speaking from my own experience.
I remember being in fourth grade in public school, proudly wearing a button saying, “All the Way with LBJ,” having no idea what Lyndon Johnson stood for. That didn’t matter. I was a Democrat because my parents were Democrats. I liked Johnson because they liked Johnson.
Most of the kids in my class were Jewish and almost all of them were Democrats. With few exceptions, the Republicans were the handful of non-Jewish kids. When one mean boy called us “Demo-rats,” I subconsciously began forming an opinion that “Republican” was something distinctly non-Jewish and borderline anti-Semitic.
Moving through high school, I had only one overarching opinion: it’s important to get into a good college.
So I studied hard and stayed out of trouble.
When I arrived at the University of Michigan, I was excited to be able to finally form my own opinions about life. But was it really my decision to go to college to do that?
Everybody goes to college.
And since I wasn’t the math or science type, I “decided” to study liberal arts. That only made sense, because I was a liberal, even though I never questioned how I became one. The fact that my studies didn’t provide the answers to my existential questions only confirmed that the answers didn’t exist.
Maybe I had just taken the wrong classes.
Maybe I just had to ask around.
I remember being at a party, randomly asking someone if he believed in G-d.
He was puzzled, almost annoyed by my question.
His answer to me: “Why don’t you just listen to the music?”
Oh, so that’s what I needed to do.
So, for a little while anyway, I stopped knocking on Heaven’s door.
Rather than be obsessed with the meaning of life, I decided I would be… successful!
And that would be my full-time job.
Everyone wants to be successful.
So I went to graduate school and started working in the business world.
Then I came to a crossroads:
Wait, is marriage part of being successful?
I hoped so.
And once I married my husband, I knew I had a trusted partner who accepted, maybe even appreciated, that I had a latent desire for a more meaningful life. He would be with me in my quest and I could only pursue avenues that satisfied him as well.
I still consider it miraculous that we returned to Jewish observance when we were both over thirty, somehow managing to fully integrate it into our young family’s lives.
If I would have just listened to the music, religion would have remained hopelessly off-key. Many of Torah’s precepts clearly contradict the liberal values I held.
But when I realized that my values and opinions were a function of the surroundings of my birth, I realized that they weren’t sacred. They weren’t even authentically mine.
This message always strikes a chord with me at Passover time, when I learn how the enslaved Jewish people had imperceptibly internalized the idol-worshipping Egyptian culture, so much so that they considered it to be truly their own. Only G-d’s overt miracles could liberate them from this mentality.
On some level, I guess that’s what He did for me, too.