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Ode to Joy

A struggle with depression led a nonobservant Jew to an unlikely source for holy inspiration

Alec Gewirtz
October 05, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

My struggle with depression began in my adolescence, after my divorced parents’ extended competition for my custody. My depression grew so acute that, in college, I considered killing myself. After graduating, I moved to Toronto, where I found lasting contentment for the first time since my childhood, as a live-in caretaker at a group home for people with disabilities. Slowly, through the intimacy of our daily routines, my housemates and I came to trust each other deeply—they with their need for assistance in bathing and toileting, each of us with our wounded need for tenderness and nonjudgmental friendship. One housemate eventually considered me his “dad,” even telling his actual dad that he now had “two dads.”

Just as we were achieving this deep emotional interdependence, COVID-19 began to sweep across Europe. Without warning, the U.S. Department of State, which administered the cultural exchange fellowship that was supporting me to live in Canada, directed me to return to the United States. Torn from my housemates, unemployed, and isolated, I felt myself slipping into renewed depression back at my dad’s house. In college, I’d stared at the concrete below my bedroom window and imagined jumping. Curled now onto a recliner with itchy crumbs in its creases, I needed to prevent myself from losing interest in my life. My left hand was deep in a bag of potato chips, while my right hand was Googling wise people from history and browsing for stirring quotes on Pinterest, when I saw a reference to the “holy joy” of the early Hasidic leaders.

As an unobservant, secular Jew who didn’t have a bar mitzvah because Hebrew school “conflicted with basketball practice,” I had little reason to relate to Hasidic thinkers. But I was desperate and “holy joy” sounded like the precise antidote to my unholy depression, so I read on with the first stirrings of authentic curiosity that I’d felt in weeks.

There was a book by Martin Buber, I saw, called Tales of the Hasidim, which collected hundreds of traditional stories about those Hasidim. I bought it, out of the dim hope that it could somehow save me from despair. I had seen descriptions of the Hasidim swirling in a dance’s ecstasy, wine sloshing onto the floor from overfilled jugs. I wanted an invitation to that party. Yet, when the book arrived a few days later, I couldn’t understand what I had expected from it, because the Hasidim were “rejoicing in the law” of the Torah, rejoicing in the goodness of God’s handiwork and plan for humanity, which meant nothing to me.

After a few scattered hours of reading, I’d lost interest in the book. I was about to toss it aside as a desperate purchase of a hopeless depressive, when I came upon a passage where Rabbi Levi Yitzhak confronts his son, who, like me, doubts God’s existence.

In college, I had sometimes talked about agnosticism with other nonbelievers. Agnosticism had struck me as an exclusively intellectual proposition, with all the emotional force of a shrug. There’s no evidence that God doesn’t exist, I acknowledged in conversations, simply an absence of evidence that God does exist. Strictly speaking, therefore, noncommittal agnosticism is simply the reasonable—if not passionate—position to embrace.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak taught me otherwise. In a bracing, unexpected passage, he speaks to his son, a nonbeliever, and acknowledges that Torah scholars “‘could not set God and his kingdom on the table before you, and I cannot do this either. But, my son, only think! Perhaps it is true [that God exists]. Perhaps it is true after all!’ The enlightened [son] made the utmost effort to reply, but the terrible ‘perhaps’ beat on his ears again and again and broke down his resistance.”

I was stunned, unexpectedly, by the unanswerable summons of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “perhaps” to recognize the import of even the possibility of God’s existence. When I’d accepted that agnosticism was the best stance to take toward God, I’d focused on the negative claim—We can’t say whether or not God exists—rather than the implicit positive claim that was buried in this negative one: Perhaps God does exist.

This positive claim hit me with Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s extraordinary force of feeling. If I’d been trapped in a locked room with an explosive device and I’d realized that “perhaps” the door’s lock could be picked, that possibility would consume me. In reality, I’d been stuck in a depressive pit of hopelessness and meaninglessness, and then I realized that “perhaps” my existence was richly meaningful because God exists; this possibility began to consume me.

My secular worldview was too entrenched to allow me even to consider embracing the Hasidic conception of an active, omnipotent God. (Given the well-documented inconsistencies in scripture, the lack of alternative pieces of compelling evidence for this God’s existence, and the difficulty of believing in a benevolent, omnipotent God who allows suffering, I didn’t care to reexamine this position.) While I couldn’t embrace a traditional conception of God, I started to read about how scientists understand the origins of the universe, in uncertain pursuit of confirmation that a more modest conception of God might be compatible with contemporary science.

What I found were countless stories about the suggestive limits of scientific understanding of the universe. In brief, scientists don’t understand what preceded the Big Bang, and scientists don’t understand why the universe appears to be “fine-tuned” for life, with values like the mass of an electron “appear[ing] to be precisely calibrated,” as physicist Alan Lightman writes: “That is, if these parameters were a little larger or a little smaller … [the] molecules needed for life could never have formed. Presumably, the values of these parameters were set at the origin of the universe.”

Of course, ignorance about the origin of the universe wasn’t nearly enough to prove God’s existence. But it left the possibility of God’s existence open, in a way I hadn’t previously recognized, since God could have been what enabled the Big Bang.

I say “God,” but the God whose existence seemed newly plausible to me wasn’t the traditional omnipotent one. It was a weak God: a God that lacked the ability to create an ideal universe, teeming with beauty and life. There were limits to the weak God’s creative powers, so the weak God could only fashion the conditions of the Big Bang such that it would be extraordinarily rare for a planet like Earth to emerge in the bleak expanse of space.

Recognizing the dim possibility of this weak God’s existence, I felt fresh surges of motivation to be appreciative of my life, since “perhaps” this world reflects a weak God’s good designs. I knew, from Rabbi Dov Baer, that, to make good on this desire to appreciate my life, I needed to defeat the self-consumed habits that had overcome me at my dad’s house: “You must cease to be aware of yourselves,” Rabbi Baer counseled. “You must be nothing but an ear which hears what the universe of the word is constantly saying within you.”

I tried to stop listening to my depressed, self-loathing thoughts, and I soon recognized the natural prompting in me to be caring toward my 73-year-old father, who was anxious about his health during the pandemic. I didn’t reflect on the command in Chapter 20 of Exodus to “[h]onor your father and your mother,” but I became sensitive to something like what “the universe of the word is constantly saying within” me.

My dad began to seem endlessly amusing to me. He stirred the carbonation out of his Coke Zero so that he didn’t become gassy. We called the small room where we watched TV “The Cozy Room,” so we’d walk around the house barking to each other, “Meet ya in The Cozy, man!” The Hasidim were key for me in understanding that the joy that he and I started to share wasn’t a diversion from the serious business of life. Instead, joy could be the marker of meeting what might be considered solemn moral obligations, like the obligation to support an aging parent. Hidden dimensions of my dad’s anxiety started to dissolve in our joy, such that I found myself fully meeting that filial obligation only through shared happiness.

Slowly, I started to feel like the person described by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak: “But he who is truly joyful is like a man whose house has burned down, who ... begins to build anew. Over every stone that is laid, his heart rejoices.” I didn’t access a state of religious ecstasy, like some of the Hasidim when dancing or singing, but the Hasidic example of the pleasure to be found in honoring ethical commands led me to rejoice in the work of laying stones at the foundation of a new life, dedicated to responding to the needs of others. Unlike the Hasidim, I had only a weak commitment to a weak God. Yet, by the Hasidim’s inspiration and example, I was able to experience my own version of holy joy.

Alec Gewirtz, ex-Fulbright Research Fellow, creates YouTube videos about spirituality.