One of my biggest struggles, even when I was still religious, was with the realization that as a person I had grown way more from therapy and self-help books than from any amount of “Torah wisdom”.
This was unacceptable to me. I didn’t want it to be this way. Torah was wisdom for living, I was taught. It was God’s guidance to me for navigating a complex and treacherous world. I didn’t want advice from some lameass human. I wanted advice from God Himself.
But this wasn’t the case. Not only was Torah unhelpful to me when I sought guidance – for a happy marriage, for dealing with anxiety, for finding satisfaction in life – it actually made things worse. It added a whole layer of complexity to my already complex life, and gave me zero tools to deal with it.
A specific example that I endlessly harp on, is meditation. I used to teach Jewish meditation, and I can tell you that the sources for meditation in Judaism are tenuous at best. A reference here, a tidbit there.
There was apparently not enough room for God to really dive into that whole meditation thing after all the dozens of times the verse “And God spake to Moses and thus He said” had been inserted. He had maxed out his word count.
And yet meditation has changed my life. It has helped me cope with anxiety, understand myself, become more patient, in short, deal with life. Instead of a specific set of results, it’s simply a process, and what happens in that process is uniquely subjective.
The tradition of this PROCESS is an integral part of Buddhist tradition, contrast that with the endless list of Jewish RESULTS, which cannot, by their definition, be subjective. Your Succah is either too tall, or it isn’t.
Torah is all What and Why with very little How. Why couldn’t God teach me to meditate? He taught me how to tie my shoes, surely this is more important?
At this point, it’s your cue insert that trite “There is wisdom amongst the nations as well” line. First of all, you conveniently invoke it when you feel like it. If it hasn’t been on a bestseller list or Oprah, or if it happens to contradict some Jewish idea, you’re far more likely to discredit the whole thing.
And more importantly, I don’t buy it. It’s one thing to have the occasional nugget of wisdom from some heathen. It’s another for non-Jewish sources to consistently out-deliver on the effectiveness and clarity front.
It is unacceptable to me that God sent me more practical wisdom through Stephen Covey than in all the one liners that are the Ethics of the Fathers (and why is that the only Tractate amongst dozens that deals with anything related to character development?)
So if you’re looking for me, you can find me in the self-help section of the library, which I wish I’d spent a lot more time in than I did in Yeshiva.