Chapter #12.5: Independence

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As all this darkness and such was unfolding I found myself in a top rabbinical academy, studying to get Smicha and become a Kiruv rabbi myself.

I had dreamt of this for years. This was the purpose of it all – to apply all those years of knowledge for the sake of “saving the Jewish people”, “making an impact”, and “helping people” – all lofty goals that made me feel a bit better about myself and the existential anxiety I lived with every day.

I remember my mother bragging to one of the thousands of Shabbat guests they’d hosted over the years. “Shalom Tzvi wants to be a Rabbi,” she had said with pride. I was probably 14 at the time. I had even applied to the program while still single, in my teens, but was told that I needed to be older and married.

The day arrived and I was both. I moved from Mitzpeh to Jerusalem just to be close to the Kollel, and became one of the first second-generation rabbinical students in the Aish world – both my father and father in law had gotten smicha from this Rabbi.

It doesn’t matter how much general knowledge you know, Smicha is given to you after the study of certain aspects of Halacha, specifically. Most commonly the laws of Shabbat, Niddah, and Kashrut. I discovered very quickly that the Halachic aspects of Torah were the least appealing to me.

First there was the discussion of how to deal with Rabinnical dispute. I was taught that, surprise surprise, there are two main opinions on how to conceptualize the myriad of disagreeing opinions in every facet of Halacha. One says that both are actually right in God’s eyes, while the other says that there’s still a wrong way but you won’t be held accountable if you follow the opinion you thought was the right one. We’re already off to a bad start.

Then we started studying the laws of Kashrut. An excruciatingly frustrating process for me, where there was no clear actionable result even after days of study and ever-nuanced opinion.

Endless debate over things that had little practical application – we spent weeks learning how to salt a liver. There was a total absence of any system of logic that would make comprehension or memory any easier. A nightmare for a big-picture person like myself who just wants to understand how it all fits together.

On Fridays, we’d have specialized classes to prepare us for the day-to-day of kiruv and interacting with people. Experts would come in and regale us with tales from the field and actionable advice. As a whole though, it was surprising how little emphasis was placed interpersonal or leadership skills, compared to the amount of time spent subjecting ourselves to the tests of academic rigor.

A few things strike me when I look back on my time with this esteemed Halachic authority I was studying under. Firstly, how inaccessible he was, how much I didn’t feel I could go to him with my personal problems. He was way too big and awesome for my puny issues. Second, how intense he was. My mother had studied with him, as had my father, and both told tales of a loving and personable individual. I found him polite and cordial, but distant and intense as fuck.

Finally, he had a way of eloquently and passionately expressing the most retarded views, or apologetically justifying extreme philosophies and practices. There was that one time he stated in class that young couples should be encouraged to have children as quickly as possible because with today’s divorce rates and marriage difficulties, having a child can be the only thing that holds the relationship together. Fuck him and his Orthodox beliefs. Now I’m divorced with children.

It wasn’t just Torah abstractions I struggled with. After trying three times, I dropped out of my Masters in Sociology studies halfway through the program because I couldn’t comprehend the teacher’s half-assed attempts at teaching statistics. I still dream of becoming a therapist, but I’ll need to find my own way of getting there, one that involves as little abstract theory as possible – I’ve exhausted my tolerance for any of that at this point.

In the daily Halacha shiur, I was bored out of my mind, had zero interest in the topics themselves, and could barely understand what was being discussed. I started reading ebooks on my computer under the guise of taking notes. I doubt anyone was fooled, but no one cared.

I discovered organizational psychology, which fascinated me – how to help systems function better with the help of psychological insight. I started hungrily reading entries from The Encyclopedia of Modern Psychology – proving that when I was interested in a topic, I could definitely buckle down to learn more about it with little outside direction.

One day I found a book on my computer called The 4 Hour Workweek. The first few chapters beat me over the head with a reality check worthy of the world’s best life coach. What are you doing with your life? Why are you where you are? Who are you trying to please by being conventional and following rules?

These questions struck a chord, and I realized that the reason I was sitting on that bench was because I thought it would make my parents happy if I became a Rabbi. I was fulfilling their dream, attempting to win favor in their eyes, instead of doing what was best for me. It’s something many people realize in their teens but I was too much of a do-gooder to examine my intentions at that time.

Once I had the realization, I was ready to walk out of the room at that moment and never look back. I had an awesome chavruta at the time who kept me on for three more excruciating months until the year was up.

To this day I’m not sure if it was worth sticking it out for those three long, painful months where I compromised on my own desires in order fulfill the social construct of “finishing what I’d started”.

There is no doubt that Tim Ferris’ book changed my life. It inspired me to make bold choices, to push my comfort zone with specific exercizes, and to experiment with outsourcing and lifestyle design. I can point to huge successes and formative experiences I’ve had as a result of this book, and am grateful to the motivating kick in the pants those first few chapters provided me.

Either way I finished my time, scraped by my exams, and a few months later was awarded formal certification – I was a motherfucking rabbi.

Full chapter list (Available in eBook Form)

  1. Kindergarten
  2. Cheder
  3. Mishna
  4. Good and Evil
  5. Gemara
  6. Yeshiva Gedola
  7. Ramat Shlomo
  8. Beitar
  9. More of That
  10. The IDF
  11. Mitzpeh
  12. Darkness
  13. Independence
  14. Shitting on the Parade
  15. Light
  16. Detox
  17. Spreading Wings
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