Elul is a Mindfuck
by Natan Stern
Can we all agree that Elul—at least in the litvish/ashkinazi iteration—is a mindfuck?
I am one of those people who has no malice or anger towards the frum community. But I have little doubt that Elul scarred me. On paper Elul may sound like a good idea – we can all use a time to reflect on our life path and acknowledge the wrongs we may have committed against our fellow man – but that is not how Elul plays out in real life for your average yeshiva bocher.
People recognize nowadays that guilt and pressure can be toxic, but no matter how much a mashgiach may try to sugarcoat the reality, The truth is that the Torah is codified in a way that pretty much guarantees to mess up people who innocently take its directives seriously.
Consider the following ideas that are planted and percolate for years inside your average bocher’s mind.
A person who speaks lashon harah can lose their entire portion in olam habah
Even 84 fasts cannot undo the damage of masturbation / there is no real way to undo the damage of p’gam habris. Rav Yehudah HaNasi never even put his hand below his belly button out of terror of stumbling in this grave sin.
The tanna Matyah Ben Charash literally burned out his eyes and then poked them out with nails in order to avoid looking at a girl who was dressed inappropriately.
Our minds are like the kodesh hakadashim and when we think a lustful thought, we are like Titus who had sex with a harlot in the kodesh hakodoshim.
Just as Talmud Torah is the biggest mitzvah, bittul torah is keneged kulam. Every second spent not learning is a second of eternity that has been squandered.
Consider how cruel and twisted someone must be in order to put these ideas into the minds of an average bocher. It is not the easiest talking about myself, but Elul was a lonely and tragic time.
I always committed to trying to do better, and—inevitably—I would fail. I have a pretty healthy sense of self, but the utterly unrealistic demands of Yiddishkeit led me down a cycle of helplessness. It taught me that—no matter how hard I tried—I was always going to end up falling into sin. I could talk to nobody. I had far too much pride to discuss my dark secrets (being a normal teenager) with my mentors or rebbeim. I spiraled into a cycle of commitment, falling, promising to do better, falling again, recommitting, trying to find new ways to guard myself, falling, getting sick and tired, recommitting for real this time, falling, feeling filthy and dirty, re-committing, finding some new sefer or system to control myself, re-falling, getting sick and tired of getting sick and tired, re-committing, etc ad insatuim.
Looking back I now see that I was just a sincere, normal teenager being a normal teenager – but Yiddishkeit (1) filled me with guilt, (2) a conviction that I was unable to control myself, and (3) the burden of bearing the idea that I was living a dark secret life, that while everyone thought I was a top-notch bocher, in the next world everyone Hashem will play a movie of my whole life in front of the entire world and everyone will know that I was a dirty horrible person.
People love talking about how beautiful Yiddishkeit is – it’s not. Judaism is cruel. And at the center of this shitstorm is Elul. As someone pointed out here recently, Sha’arei Teshuva, one of the most popular “Elul seforim” – is chock full of toxic ideas. Hashem gave you everything AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY HIM! Hashem is walking in the garden, now is your time to run and BEG HIM FOR FORGIVENESS! Always remember you come from a SPOILED DROP OF SEMEN and your fate is to RETURN TO THE DUST so REPENT NOW while you still have a chance!
I know some of you will instinctively react by saying that I am distorting Jewish theology. This is not the “real” Torah outlook. I do not mean to close off debate, but I implore you to stop for a moment and consider that perhaps your comment is just minimalizing the very real pain of many of us who were very hurt by this system. Denying a problem that causes so much pain to so many is a form of gaslighting and does nothing to help the fundamental issue. Maybe in your version of Judaism, nothing is meant literally, and the Torah only gives positive encouragement. But please consider that your opinion may not reflect how Yiddishkeit is ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED by people who are educated in the typical yeshiva system. In yeshiva, we are exposed to the actual source text – not the sanitized version preached by moderates and kiruv people. I am not saying that you can’t find sources that preach a happy, healthy, normal version of Yiddishkeit – I am saying that many sources preach an evil and cruel version of Yiddishkeit and that, if you are a yeshiva bocher reading this – please understand: you are not the problem, Yiddishkeit is.
Yes, it is presented as Torah MiSinai, but it’s often complete BS. And the guilt just screws with being a normal person. There can be no feeling good, because it’s just connected with the guilt. It’s really important to go easier on ourselves and live authentically, rather than trying to repress and suppress…
For starters, i’d like to commend you on a beautifully written article. The ideas you expressed so eloquently pretty much reflect a lot of what i went through during my early yeshiva years. i was in what was considered a VERY “litv’ishe” yeshiva and went through basically everything you described; besides, however, the level of innocence you seem to have had.
Hence, after years of going through this, when i was told that the differently-dressed boy i had met during a pickup basketball game, would be a “bad influence” and “destroy my Neshama”(something i had heard fairly often; from the way you describe your teenage years, i would bet you did too), i obviously did the opposite of what they intended-befriended him.
Originally, it was all just coming from my pressure-cooker-like frustration with the status quo, but once i had been to Sholom(-my new-found illegal friend-)’s house and met his family, i started growing an actual curiosity over why my rabbis and teachers had been so against my relationship with him. They kept all the halachos etc., and were in some ways more stringent over a lot of customs that were generally ignored by everyone i knew!
I’m not sure how long it took me to work up the courage, but sooner or later i asked him personaly what everyone had against them. His explanation was SHOCKING.
Sholom explained that this attitude hadn’t started with him or even his family- this was an age-old rivalry that had plagued all the followers of his ideology for over two century’s( in case you haven’t guessed it by now, his family was Chabad). He told me that hundred’s of years ago, a man by the name of Yisrael-later dubbed affectionally “Ba’al Shem Tov”- had seen that the way many jews(generally the elite, learned among them) treated G-d, Jews, and Torah had strayed pretty far from the way it had always and was supposed to look.
(btw, this is where the connection to your article comes in.) This Yisrael saw basically everything you described in you article, and then some. he saw how gehenna-the jewish “hell”, although in actuality has absolutely nothing to do with the christianized way many jews perceive it to be- was being used to frighten, terrorize, etc. people into being good.
And the problem with this was that 1) this is NOT what Judaism is (don’t worry, i saw what you wrote at the end of your article, and i’ll address it in a sec) , and 2) Jews were reacting to this garbage by turning out kind of like you and I.
When I heard that, and Sholom showed me the actual philosophy of Judaism-the way it is seen by the vast majority of Jews nowadays- I immediately quit the yeshiva I was currently enrolled in and switched to his.
And Voila! suddenly Elul was unrecognizable from the Hell i (and you, clearly)was taught it was; suddenly G-d was a Father, not a policeman; and if you’re really interested, ask any Chabad Shliach for the way to reconcile this outlook with the aforementioned sources (all i can tell you now is, no, you are NOT EXPECTED to gouge out your eyes. OR to fast at all for your p’gam bris. See Tanya for details.)
Look; I’m not trying to be one of those haters, “that wasn’t real Judaism, you misunderstood them…blablabla”(-to be read in an extremely annoying, artificially high-pitched voice-) even if i sound like i am. What I’m saying is that I went through what seems to be a very similar experience to yours, and I’m very, very grateful that I was shown the not only the true outlook of Judaism, but real, live, LOVING (and I really mean that) Jews/Rabbi’s/Buchorim that actually jump for joy when Elul comes around- I know I also thought they were faking at first. Stress on “at first”. And these guys were regular letzim and bot’lei torah like any bochur in my old Yeshiva!
The point is, please learn Tania and/or Lekutei mahara”n (or the like)-there are a huge amount of translations, adaptations etc. all over (I for one am ADDICTED to Chabad.org), and only afterwards make your decision on Judaism.
Thanks again for the eye-opening article.
I’ll take things that never happened for 500, Alex
Stumbling upon this late but yes!!! Amazing. I have never felt more understood. These two lines… “The truth is that the Torah is codified in a way that pretty much guarantees to mess up people who innocently take its directives seriously” and then “this not the sanitized version preached by moderates and kiruv people.” Perfection.
Only since leaving orthodoxy, rabbis and other frum Jews try to present a different Judaism to me, full of gentility and love. But that’s not how it was.
Every year during Elul, I experienced what I know now was very real anxiety and a destroyed self esteem. At as young as 10 or 11 years old. I’d cry and feel horrible for how “mean” I was to Hashem. Summer camp during Tishaa Baav was another time of self hate and anxiety. I worried constantly about Hashems feelings, and every time I struggled, I was sure he was hurting me because he hated me for how bad I was. Not healthy. Not ok.
I ache for your pain, sincerely, your orthodox sister, Dina