To enter the dance of Yiddishkeit is to enter a mystery that takes you over. You might feel like you have yourself together, you’re all tucked in, you’re choosing your level of involvement, but before you know it, you are caught in the gears of connection and are pulled along into a life that goes back thousands of years.
It might be the warmth of your rebbe’s smile, it might be the Friday night invite, it might be the power of morning minyan, but you are quickly entangled in something greater than yourself. I’ve never encountered anything like Orthodox Judaism for binding people together. Some people do pull themselves out, but it usually comes at enormous cost. People who leave Orthodox Judaism frequently strike me as deformed by the experience (Mormons say the same thing about ex-Mormons).
In 1988 at UCLA, I first became interested in Judaism through listening to Dennis Prager on the radio. I liked his presentation of Judaism as a rational system of ethical monotheism. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, and the mystical social non-rational community of traditional Judaism spoke to a part of my soul that I didn’t know existed.
Book Two of Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is called “A Twitch Upon the Thread”:
Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’”
Poet Haim Nahman Bialik grew up Orthodox and then left it. His Torah teacher is reputed to have said to him that due to his upbringing, he’ll never be able to enjoy his sins.
On the other hand, I notice that to participate in social distancing is to open up a whole host of possibilities that all tend to reduce religious observance. Many people’s habits were disrupted by Covid and have not returned. Once you get out of the habit of davening and communal Torah study, it’s hard to resume it.
One step leads to another. One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah and one sin leads to another sin.