I Don’t Want Your Culture! I Want G-d!

There’s this story about the Alter Rebbe, the first rebbe of Chabad.

In a state of passion he yelled out, “I don’t want your Garden of Eden! I don’t want your Next World!  All I want is you!

I don’t know if it’s possible to realize how big of a statement that is, especially coming from a holy man.  He was saying, basically, that even the biggest reward of a good life… he didn’t want it.  Even the whole reason the world was created, he didn’t want it.  He just wanted a total and a true connection with G-d, with Hashem.

And so he cried out, cried and cried.  Begging for that connection.  Willing to give it all up just for that.

I’ve been thinking about that story a lot recently.

I have this thing, this issue within me.  It’s this problem.

When I was secular, I always felt “out” of the world.  Not part of the culture.  I felt like I had this idea of what truth was and no one else understood it, and so I could never communicate with anyone on a true level.  Whether I was being a hippie, or a hipster, or a popular kid, or a poker-playing trash-talker… I never felt like any of those identities was really who I was.  I was putting on a costume.

And then… I found Judaism.

I remember being in that Chabad house in Arizona State University.  I remember when my rabbi would start to talk about how G-d was both in the world and out of it.  And I thought, “Wow, that’s like… the way I think.  Except I use the word Tao.”

And then he would talk about infinite, and time, and death and life… and every word he said, it was like he reached in my head and grabbed all my thoughts.  It was like I was no longer alone.  It was like there was suddenly this world of people who thought the way I thought.

And for the first time in my life, I got along with everyone.  I was close with the people who were going to the same Chabad house.  More than I ever was with the hippies.  Or the poker players.  I belonged.

I remember as the process of becoming religious moved forward, that I wondered if I had finally found a community of people who thought like me.  Who would allow me to be me, because they were just like me.

And, at first, it seemed like that was the case.  Mayanot, my yeshiva, encouraged the same growth.  The people around me, my friends, were so similar to my friends in Arizona.  They were explorers.  Outsiders who had made their own world in this tiny part of Jerusalem.

It was fun, it was real.  But part of me knew it wouldn’t last.  It couldn’t.  There was no way everyone was like this.

I was right, of course.  The moment I left Mayanot I knew I had left that world of explorers.  Whatever community I lived in after that, I immediately felt like an outsider.  I felt like I didn’t belong again.  Although our beliefs matched, on a day to day level I just didn’t “fit”.

And that feeling has continued until today.  I am alone.  My wife and I are the outsiders looking into the cultures we are supposedly a part of.  Just like when I was growing up.  Just like always.

I wondered for a while if that meant there was something wrong with me.  If I was being a bad Jew for not embracing the culture around me with all my heart, trying to fit in perfectly.

And then I started Pop Chassid.  And I released my thoughts to the world.  Thoughts that were all from the point of view of a person who cared deeply about his beliefs, but who wanted to come from his own perspective.

And slowly, people responded.  People began to comment.  To follow.  To engage.

And over and over, the ones who were the most passionate, the ones who cared the most about what I wrote… they were like my friends in ASU.  My friends at Mayanot.  They were the explorers, the people who felt like me.  Who didn’t belong but belonged all at the same time.

And we connected through this blog, and we got to know each other.  And many of us are friends now.

Some are religious.  Plenty aren’t.  Most are Jewish, but there are plenty of others.  From Christians to Muslims to everything else.

We all have one thing in common: we are the explorers.

And this has changed everything for me.  When I saw that, when I saw there were others like me and my wife… when I saw that there wasn’t something wrong with me for never fitting in.  When I realized that the only reason I felt like I fit in at ASU Chabad and at Mayanot was because those were places where you had to be an explorer to even arrive at… it all crystallized.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking about that story of the Alter Rebbe.  Because I’ve realized that not feeling like I fit into a culture doesn’t mean I’m any more or less religious.  At the end of the day, it’s all about wanting to connect with G-d and helping others do the same.

And the funny thing is that as the more I’ve embraced this outsider role, the more I’ve felt comfortable, ironically, being a part of this frum culture.  Because the culture exists, but it is not nearly as important as the core of Judaism and living that core.

I’ve also realized something even more important: I used to beat myself up for not fitting in.  For not fitting my square hole into that round peg.  And so I tried different things to help myself fit in more.

But, in retrospect, I’ve realized the more I tried to do that, the less religious I became.  I would pray less, pray less hard, study less Torah, write less, work less.  I was so distracted trying to fit in that I was forgetting the Alter Rebbe’s cry: It’s all about G-d!  It’s all about G-d!

And I see so many others, so many people in the world, explorers or otherwise, that forget that.  For whom the culture has become more important than the connection.  And so they perfectly take on everything.  And they seem so frum.  But whenever they criticize someone for not doing the “right thing”, they say, “A frum person doesn’t do that!” rather than “That’s hurting your relationship with G-d, with the Truth of the world.  Don’t you want to have a good relationship?”

Because they either don’t realize that there is such people as Explorers in the world.  Or, worse, to them the culture is everything.  They want the Next World, not This G-d.

At the end of the day, the Jewish culture is a beautiful one.  So is the frum one.  And it’s necessary, of course, it’s what keeps us glued together, with a common connection.  But it is not the point.  It is simply a tool to help us reach deeper within ourselves and into others.