Are You a Destinationist or a Traveler?

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Writing on Hevria, Elad Nehoral discusses evolving as a person and as an Orthodox Jew. I suggest reading the description of his process in his own words.

To me, it sounds like Elad was uncomfortable confining his religious experience to the Chabad worldview, and has started the process of exploring other versions of Orthodox Judaism. His loyalty to Chabad began to feel like disloyalty to himself, and the dissonance ruined everything.

I admire Elad’s bravery. I see three significantly courageous aspects in this new chapter of Elad’s story thus far. First, he was honest with himself. It takes great personal strength to be self-aware. Many people are unhappy, but they don’t even realize it or understand why. The reason most of us are self-oblivious is because it’s so scary to confront our inner conflict. We are afraid to face ourselves. It takes courage, and Elad found that courage.

Relief from discomfort does not automatically follow awareness of discomfort. Sometimes we’re lazy. Other times, we believe we deserve our unhappiness. Mostly, I think we are scared to make changes. We are scared of God, or friends and family, or mentors and teachers, or any other influential force in our life. Our fear paralyzes us. Elad found the strength to make changes, and that is the second area of bravery.

Making personal changes is difficult, but still private. Publicizing one’s questions and doubts is scary. Telling the world about unconventional changes takes a lot of guts. We love to scrutinize others, and we think we know how to fix everyone’s issues. So when someone makes their issues public, we may criticize what we see as wrong decisions. If we’re kind, we may politely applaud the individual who is sharing their struggles, while reassuring ourselves that we there’s no need for us to change. Opening the door to this kind of scrutiny is extremely brave. Indeed, many have lauded Elad’s essay, but not everyone. The criticism can be summarized as “you’re not doing it right,” or “it works for me so it has to work for you.”

Some people thrive in closed systems, and these people just need to find the right system. The lucky ones are born into a system that already works for them, but many are less fortunate and need to search for their place. There are other people who are simply not “system people.” These are the seekers. They’re not looking for a particular system that works for them, but seeking for purpose of seeking. It’s about living without the certainty a system provides. It’s about the journey.

When we encounter seekers, we so badly want to find them their place, but they have no fixed place! Their place is between places. That’s where they belong. We get so lost in the vicarious search for their place, that we forget to acknowledge that some people are not looking for a place. We don’t validate them as seekers. We implicitly tell them that the journey is about the destination, and this tells them that their journey is not valid. Doing this kills people. It kills their souls, their thirst, their love, their potential, their everything. It says to them, “you are not acceptable.”

Somehow we all need to accept that our religious preferences are subjective, and what works for us might be death for him, and vice versa. We get stuck in our institutionalized versions of whatever it is that we do, and reinforce the false paradigm that we must choose from a finite number of prefabricated boxes. We don’t accept people in the other box, or we insist that there are no problems in our box. Everything about this is wrong. The boxes are all just an illusion created for the Destinationists who demand certainty and rigidity. They can have their boxes and labels and institutions, but they cannot impose those shackles on the Travelers. Yet, this is precisely what has happened, and it is killing us.

Moreover, I think we are supposed to be Travelers and not Destinationists. Indeed, the Torah is a closed system, but within Torah there is almost an infinite number of paths. There is a reason the Talmud says there are seventy facets of Torah: boxes are a man-made booby-trap, not an ideal. The Torah wants us to choose everything we do, not to feel our Judaism wash over us as we lie asleep in the sand. We should be experiencing the Judaism that speaks to us, culling and curating from an infinite combinations of ideas, rituals, expressions, and flavors. This is how the Traveler lives a Jewish life. This is the ideal. This is being awake.

When I see someone escaping the box and beginning a never-ending personal life journey, I see cause for celebration. This is someone who has woken up and is beginning to choose more personally. This gives meaning to everything they do, and destroys the box that has been killing them for as long as they have been inside it.

There is nothing to fear. Each of us has a special, unique voice in the universal chorus of life. When we give our voice to institutionalized versions of Judaism, it is stripped of its individuality. This is a painful personal tragedy. but also a communal one. We need all of our authentic voices to sing in the chorus. In order to facilitate that, every box must have a door. If there is a box without a door, it must be changed. If someone leaves your box, hug them on the way out, and promise to love them no matter where their journey leads.

Leaving the box and talking about it should not require so much bravery. This option must be available to all Travelers. It must be available to every self-aware, awakened person. Destinationists fixate on the specific things that didn’t work for the Traveler. They try to fix those particular things, or explain them away, but it’s not about the “thing” at all. It’s about waking up and not wanting to be stuck in the box. Answers and excuses are not only irrelevant, they show a gross misunderstanding of the dynamics at play.

Judaism does not have to hurt. It should not be painful. Judaism does not have to be dark and scary. It should be pleasant. It should be beautiful. It should be meaningful. It should be yours. If you are awake, it’s all within your grasp. To get there, the first thing you need to do is forget about ever getting there. Then you are ready to become a Traveler. Join us.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.