Out of Spiritual Commission?

A Seminary Retrospective

By Hannah Dreyfus
On May 20, 2012


My seminary Rabbi called me a broken fan.

Last June, at a festive end of year colloquium, one of my seminary's most beloved Rabbis was invited to speak. He presented his wide-eyed, attentive audience with the particularly vivid analogy of an unplugged fan. While plugged in, a fan whirls along busily, conscientiously, dutifully, zealously, to the great appreciation of all present. There is nothing more productive, more laudable, than a plugged-in fan, merrily achieving what it was created to achieve. Then, there is the sad, unfortunate scene of an unplugged fan. Its source of energy unexpectedly severed, the cheerfully spinning panels start to slow and stutter, eventually coming to a half-hearted, unceremonious halt; the wind literally taken out of their sails. A sad, teetering, indecisive close to what could have been a most promising career.

This sagacious individual did not risk leaving his polemic to the indeterminate realm of metaphor. The follow-up elucidation went something like this: "Here, in seminary, you are a plugged-in fan. Connected to the Source [qualified in frustratingly vague terminology, including 'Yiddeshkeit,' 'Torah,' and 'Hashem'] you whirr along contentedly, until, at the year's close, you are rudely, abruptly disconnected. Your job, dear students," said he, "is to reconnect to the 'Source' in the vacuum of spiritual meaning [codeword for college] into which you are soon bound to fall. The picture he painted was a sorry one indeed: the gates of seminary closing with a final clang, and we, noses pressed against the cold iron, looking back wistfully at the people we once were.

The message, albeit presented in significantly less elegant prose, foreshadowed some vital loss bound to accompany change. In accordance with the analogy, our seminary selves were productive, goal-oriented individuals, existences meaningful and validated. Our post-seminary selves: individuals scrambling for meaning, enduring an existence without drive, cause, reason, or aim.

At the time, I, along with my 20 or so comrades, listened with all earnestness, shuddering at the lonely fate that seemed to lie in wait. We thanked our Rabbi sincerely, silently promising ourselves never to become the unplugged fans of which he so ominously spoke.

One year later, that analogy irks me irreconcilably. To my great frustration, I have not been able to successfully rid myself of the image. The picture conjured up by the analogy, a sorry fan enjoying its last life-infused strokes, has served to feed the undue pangs of guilt characteristic of the post-seminary readjustment back into "real life."

The idea that in seminary you have somehow arrived, that you have discovered your raison d'être, and the rest of your life, or college career at least (until that long-awaited moment when you ride off into the sunset with Prince Charming and set up shop in the Heights) must be spent playing catch-up, is particularly pernicious. And, more than harmful, the image is deeply inaccurate.

One's spiritual journey is a process, a constant, continual development. It cannot and should not be pegged to one isolated time frame. It would indeed be a sorry reality if your spiritual "climax" was reached at the ripe old age of 18. Spiritual "growth," as it is colloquially termed, is not a linear progression, but a cohesive, holistic, often meandering, exploration. Goals and visions form a mold, a basic outline - the method of attaining those goals is essentially and necessarily protean in nature.

During a recent phone conversation with a friend who is currently in seminary, I listened to her prattle on about all the various things she is learning, and how wonderful it is, etc. To which I cheerfully responded, "Gosh, you just make me feel so out of spiritual commission."

That comment, that thought process, needs to be fought against. Limiting spirituality to one, crystallized, rigid image is not helpful, mature, or realistic. It is a set-up for unnecessary guilt and an impediment towards progress. As life changes, we change - we are not expected to stay the same. What may have been an "ideal" for someone during his/her year in Israel may not be an ideal for him/her now - not because he has plummeted from spiritual grace, not because he has taken a steep and heedless dive off the "religious" plateau where he temporary held fort, but because different circumstances demand and deserve different responses.

This article, and my subsequent thought processes, pivot around the question: is there one, immutable ideal, into which rigid contours one must work to fit his constantly shifting life circumstances? Or, are different ideals produced by different circumstances? Is there one, overarching destination point, or is striving itself, in whichever context life provides, a destination point within itself?

I affirmatively argue the latter. Ideals must change as life invariably changes. If we refuse to rethink, reassess, and reform ideals, we will be left looking back, and not forwards.

I am not the person I was, heavily rolling my suitcase away from seminary one year ago. I have spent time learning different things, meeting new people, sampling new experiences. Have I changed? Most definitely. My definition of spiritual growth has expanded far beyond the Beit Midrash, beyond walking to the Kotel every Wednesday afternoon, beyond learning Rav Dessler on a grassy hilltop overlooking Jerusalem. In no way do I intend to detract from the importance of these experiences - for one time and place, they were an ideal. But this year, a new ideal, shaped in light of new circumstance and not despite new circumstance, has taken form. I have found inspiration in unanticipated locales - literary criticism, intellectual history, modern art. I've found beauty and serenity in the streets of New York, although I no longer have the privilege to walk through the streets of Jerusalem. But it is a change I refuse to look upon with disdain or nostalgia. If, last year, I subscribed, consciously or unconsciously, to the idea of one, stagnant, rigid, unforgiving ideal, it is an idea to which I no longer subscribe. Today, I subscribe to maximizing circumstance; not wistfully wishing circumstance conformed to some idealized picture of what was.

I hope never again to think of myself as a fan that has stopped whirring. I am, instead, a fan persistently seeking new sources of inspiration and drive; greeting each uniquely different day as it comes, with excitement and anticipation.

You know, after all, I'm more of the literal type. Perhaps I'll let my Rabbi know.

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