The Netflix mini-series Unorthodox was both captivating and heartbreaking. The fictional story of a young woman’s struggles growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it resonated with many who watched it because, while fictional, it mirrors the truths of many people’s lives who grow up in ultra-orthodox communities.
I was recently joined on the podcast by Gene Steinberg, a former member of the Satmar Hasidic community in New York. He lived in the community for 28 after years before deciding to leave due to the inner turmoil that took over his life. As he began to question facets of Jewish tradition and belief, he was met with insufficient answers. The more he questioned, the more he felt repressed. And with scarce answers, the depth of his confusion grew. He decided he could no longer continue a life that felt inauthentic. So he made the bold and brave decision to leave the community that had comprised his entire life.
There are few conversations on the podcast that have resonated with me to the extent that Gene’s did. His description of the inner strife he dealt with for so many years was devastating. On the one hand, he could not commit to the Orthodox life to which he was indoctrinated, for there were too many inconsistencies in the teachings and philosophy. On the other hand, he was told that if he left the community, he would not survive – without an education, financial means or any familiarity with secular societal norms. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he felt truly hopeless and lost.
But the courage that emerged not only led to his departure from the community, but also led to his foundation of Freidom, an organization that helps former and practicing Orthodox members to navigate the hardships of leaving the community as well. His and his team’s work has transformed many people’s lives and given hope where all felt lost.
Religion can bring people together. It can celebrate heritage and tradition and promote the values of family, kindness and giving. The shared culture amongst a religious group often fosters a sense of unity unmatched by most other communities. Shared belief in a higher being can have a powerful binding force.
The problem emerges, however, when those shared beliefs are bred by blind acceptance. When we believe things just because we are told to, our lives can begin to feel inauthentic. The search for truth is a powerful thing. And perhaps the only way each of us can ever arrive at our own truth is by uninhibited and unrestricted questioning.
When born into an extremist sect of religion, the risk arises that the questioning can be artificial. Many religions do value the idea of questioning. But questioning has no value if you are expected to arrive at a certain answer. Many Jewish and other religious texts do value the act of questioning and exploration into complex philosophies and ideas. But most of these lines of questioning are aimed at arriving at a specific answer. For example, it may be permissible to question the idea of a single monotheistic deity. But in most extremist orthodox sects, the teachings would typically guide the student to the unequivocal conclusion that, despite all the questioning, there is only one God.
Yet what is the point of asking a question, if regardless of the path one takes, one is expected to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. As the old adage goes, “life is about the journey, not the destination”. But the journey loses its meaning and authenticity if the destination is known before one sets off. A journey’s power lies in the unknown and the indeterminate range of outcomes.
Religion can be a beautiful thing. It can be transcendent, spiritual and meaningful. But we must be cautious of indoctrinating strong beliefs into the generations that follow us. Religion’s ability to unite is only as strong as the individual beliefs of each of its members. A religious organization built on a foundation of censored ideas and restricted questioning lacks authenticity. Only those beliefs arrived at by an uninhibited search for truth will provide true meaning and fulfillment.
So as I reflect on my conversation with Gene, I cannot help but immensely admire his courage to ask “why”. He refused to accept the world the way he was told to see it. And while his story applies to religion, the message translates to all facets of our lives. We must constantly question why we believe the things we do and why we live our lives the way we do. Do our beliefs originate from truth-seeking? Or are they rather based on what we have been told is “normal”? Are our beliefs based on deep exploration, or are they merely “preconceived”?