Dear Dr. Haimoff,
I fear that I have had a serious yeridah (decline) in my religious life over the past several years. I was once a yeshiva student flying high on learning and serving Hashem. I was into it. I felt so passionate about my observance and was much more motivated to resist temptation. However, now that I am 25 years old, single, and several years out of yeshiva, I feel that much of my personality has changed. I still go through the motions, with putting on tefillin every day and some of the other basics, but the feeling isn’t there anymore. The passion is gone. The only thing really keeping me going at this point is guilt and built-in habits.
What do I do? How can I get back to my old self? And how can reconcile this great discrepancy between the values I once cherished so greatly and my current state?
A Sad Bachur
Dear Sad Bachur,
I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling. Although it is normal for one’s religious attitudes and practices to evolve and develop over time, especially during the early formative years, it still could bring great emotional distress when we feel like we have regressed in our religious fervor. I have worked with many young religious men around your age in therapy, and almost all of them have expressed similar feelings and experiences to what you are describing. There is a lot of Jewish guilt about not being able to keep up the same level of commitment over time. As I’ll elaborate on later, I believe it is crucial, and very beneficial, to process the feelings and thoughts we experience in these situations, as opposed to just problem-solving and fishing for solutions.
There are, of course, several simple explanations to help understand why you are going through this. The first and most obvious is the change of environment. As human beings, like all other creatures, we are affected by our environment and the social elements from our peers. We are influenced by the behaviors of those around us, especially when we are with them for long periods of time. It is so much easier to be passionate and motivated about learning and davening when surrounded by like-minded individuals and when we’re in an environment that prioritizes and supports those activities. It is simply unrealistic to expect the same kind of results outside of the yeshiva environment.
I believe there is also a deeper and more overarching concept at play here.
The emotional state you are describing could be best explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance. A (Jewish) psychologist named Leon Festinger theorized that when our actions don’t match our beliefs, we experience psychological discomfort, usually in the form of guilt. This uncomfortable feeling, or dissonance, can’t remain unchecked, so our psyche has a clever way of making it go away—something has to change. We either need to change our behaviors to match our beliefs, or we need to modify our beliefs to justify our actions. Which choice do you think is best?
While it may be more virtuous to work on our behaviors to have them be more in line with our belief system, the reality is that changing our beliefs to match our behaviors is much less work. We can justify our actions by telling ourselves why it is really OK or not a big deal. Take the classic example of a man addicted to smoking cigarettes. If he were to answer honestly about whether smoking is good for his health and a good habit to have, I think almost all smokers would respond that it is not healthy and a terrible habit. So the question is: if it is so obvious to them that smoking is so bad, why do they continue to do it? The answer is that quitting smoking or any addiction is incredibly difficult. It requires tremendous humility, discipline, perseverance, diligence, integrity, and resilience. But the uncomfortable negative feelings of hypocrisy, guilt, shame, and despair need to be dealt with somehow. And that’s where the magic of cognitive dissonance happens. The smoker changes his beliefs and attitudes to resolve the conflict. He will tell himself things like, “It won’t happen to me,” “They don’t know what they are talking about,” or “I can handle it.”
I believe there is an incredible insight from this week’s parashah, Bo, on the concept of cognitive dissonance, which I also wrote about in the Handbook of Torah and Mental Health. One of the biggest questions in the parashah is: How could it be that Pharaoh was so stubborn and didn’t give in to Moshe, even after witnessing so many clear signs? I believe that Pharaoh had to keep changing his beliefs in order to justify his behaviors. He didn’t want to let them go, so he had to “harden his heart”—perform clever mental gymnastics—in order to validate his actions.
It is also a quite a surprise in the parashah when we learn about the mitzvah of tefillin for the first time. The context is a bit random. The Torah had just completed the last of the ten plagues, culminating with Pharaoh finally agreeing to let the Jewish people go. And then, before continuing with the Exodus story, we read about a strange commandment to bind parchment scrolls on our arms and head. What does tefillin have anything to do with the rest of the story?
The mitzvah of tefillin is about synchronizing our behaviors with our beliefs. According to Rav Kook, the tefillin shel rosh (head) represents our thoughts/values, and the shel yad (arm) represents our actions. When putting on tefillin, we are supposed to maintain concentration so as to not have a disconnect between the two. Interestingly, when putting them on and taking them off, we never wear just the shel rosh without the shel yad, as if to say: don’t change your beliefs to justify your behaviors; rather, engage in value-based behaviors to achieve psychological harmony.
So Mr. Bachur, if we were discussing this issue in a therapy session, I would invite you to explore your feelings about religion. I would ask you questions like: “What does religion do for you?” “How does it make you happier or a better person?” “What are the sacrifices you have to consistently make in order to maintain a frum lifestyle?” And of course we would also dive deep into the nuances of religious guilt for not being a good Jew, and whether there are other healthier and halachically acceptable ways of perceiving your current struggles.
There is no easy answer or simple solution. This will be a lifelong journey of learning to balance the contradiction of striving for growth/improvement with acceptance of your limitations and shortcomings. I wish you lots of clarity and strength on your journey.
Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. He specializes in treating children, adolescents, and adults with anxiety and behavioral disorders. He is also the co-author of the “Handbook of Torah and Mental Health” and a public speaker on topics related to Judaism and psychology. For more information, visit rabbidrsaulhaimoff.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.