I Sold My Soul
13 years ago, I started a journey into joining a Hasidic sect. Here's what I learned, and why I look back with pain and regret.
We’ve all seen some version of the story.
A character needs something, wants something, so bad that they’ll do anything for it. Suddenly, the devil, or some character playing the part of the devilish character, appears out of nowhere.
They’ll give the person all they desire, their very wish guaranteed. And it will cost virtually nothing.
Only their soul.
The stories are usually then followed by a series of realizations that selling their soul, something distant and ethereal, was actually the worst mistake they possibly could have made. And in the meantime, everything they had hoped they’d gain through selling their soul crumbles to dust.
I remember when I was in high school, the most popular version of this story was the satirical take on the Simpsons, in which Bart sells his soul to Milhouse, convinced that there isn’t any such thing as a soul anyway. All of us at some point ended up jokingly selling our souls to each other for stuff like snacks from lunch, and then would fight desperately to get them back.
At the time, I think most of us felt it was just a story about souls and whether they exist. As far as I can gather, most others see it the same way.
It was only recently that my experience with an existential pain made me rethink all that.
We all have a deep need for meaning. In fact, according to great scholars like Viktor Frankl, the “Search for Meaning” is actually the deepest drive of all humanity.
For me, I know it’s been a driver since I was young.
I took this test once when I was young, it was one of those ridiculous things meant to pre-decide what your profession would be. I was always desperate to get answers from those things, and they always seemed to be off.
This one had a sort of multi-layered circular system, where it would give you different sectors of different levels of the circle based off of what category you fit. Apparently, I was so hard to test that it literally just gave me the center circle and told me it had no idea what I could be.
I failed a career test.
The reason this hit me so hard at the time was because I felt so very lost. I had trouble focusing on school, and had largely internalized the message from teachers that I was just a bad apple (as opposed to someone with bipolar who had learned bad habits, something that took me quite a few years and a near death experience to understand). And so I always kind of hoped if I found my “thing” life would all work itself out. Not having any idea what I wanted to do with my life, despite being a totally normal thing for a high schooler, deepened my conviction that I’d never find my place in the world.
I got more desperate in college, when depression overwhelmed me to the point of virtual incapacitation at times, worsened by an addiction to pot that I was using to self-medicate whatever was going on.
The one area I had found some measure of solace during that dark time was in my readings of Taoism, and I held out hope that perhaps in spirituality I could find some truth.
After said near death experience, followed by a stay in a mental hospital, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar, followed by years of recovery, I became more alone, more scared than ever that perhaps I really would never find my place in the world.
I tried to stay away from meaning for a while, but that didn’t lead me straight into a better life. The year after leaving the hospital, I got sucked back into bad habits and addictions. I spent the next year after that simply recovering by leaving my entire old life behind and starting a new one with some religious Christian friends of mine.
Although I had no interest in Christianity, I was moved by how much meaning they seemed to have in their lives due to their religion. I was even moved that they had a community of people they could call home.
It was at this vulnerable time in my life that I finally allowed myself to think about deeper things again, to hold out hope that I might find my thing, my place in the world.
And it was at this same time that I started visiting a Hasidic community in my college. One that, like many you will now find on college campuses, is nominally about simply allowing Jewish students to connect to “authentic” Jewish experiences and to feel the power of a Shabbat meal. But which had, at least for me, much bigger plans.
Walking into that community was the first time in my life that I felt like I belonged. It was a combination of their truly deep and beautiful mystical ideas (which sounded incredibly close to the Taoism that had moved me) and the welcoming, loving community itself.
I had found meaning. And when I visited, I no longer felt alone. I had a home, both spiritually and communally. And after all I had been through, I wasn’t going to let that go.
Today, I look back on that moment with mixed feelings.
Practically everything good in my life came from the choices that led me to choose Orthodox Judaism as my path. My incredible wife, my beautiful children, my writing, my audience, my journey from Israel to Chicago to Israel to New York. A life where I was able to work as a journalist while studying Torah, reporting on a war on the frontlines and then going back to yeshiva to learn about God. A life where I could come to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and make a name for myself almost immediately as a writer.
My rabbi from college officiated my wedding. He was the one who worked with my wife and I on the steps towards marriage. He has been there for me in so many ways.
And so… to write about all of this in a negative light feels like a betrayal.
And yet. Here I am.
What I have come to understand is that the reason every good thing came from my choice to become religious is because everything in my entire life came from choosing to be religious.
It’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced something as all-encompassing as this kind of religion, but every bit of your life gets wrapped up into this life. Every choice, from marriage to what you eat to where you live to what you write to who you interact with… literally every single choice… is in some way connected to your religious choices.
Even today, I can feel the echoes of it. Just before returning to writing this piece, I got a voice note from my college rabbi asking me to contribute to his fundraising campaign. This campaign is being run on a website that I helped market. And I got that job because the person who started it was his brother in law, and he sweetly helped me as I was trying to find my place in the Hasidic world.
This is, in fact, exactly what I felt gave me so much meaning at first.
The feeling of being enveloped in a world where existential questions (or maybe: answers) are part of life, and where community is so integral to that pursuit, and where you are no longer searching because you’ve found it… that’s attractive.
I remember, one day, alone in my room, depressed. In utter depression. I had been smoking pot day after day alone in my room without windows, unaware that in a year and a half I’d be diagnosed with bipolar. And I was reading the Tao te Ching, asking myself when I would finally find my place, finally end this journey.
In other words, I associated the journey with pain. And I associated finding a home where I could put my baggage down and kick my feet up with joy.
It’s not that I would have taken just any space that offered that sort of hope. I managed to avoid religious Christianity while living in a house full of Christians for a year. I was inherently suspicious of most religious movements after my experience.
It was, in fact, the inherent beauty of Hasidic thought that opened me up to it all. That it wasn’t nonsense, and that it did, in fact, speak to something deep and true in me. All of that I still know to be true. And it’s why when I look back on it all, I am less angry about what happened when things started to fall apart. Because the truth is that within that world is beauty, truth, and beautifully true people.
Many cults have those things.
Since my entire life, every bit of it, came from choosing to be religious in the way that I had, that meant that that while every good thing that came into my life came from it, so did every bad thing.
That’s the devil’s bargain, you see.
I said to myself: “I need meaning. I need a community of meaning. I am so desperate for it that I would do anything for it. But it needs to be real, authentic, true to me. It needs to speak to a place deep within me.
I don’t want to journey anymore. I want to find a home. A place where they tell me, I’ve found it, the story is over.”
And then comes along this tempting voice and it says, “Here. Here. Look. Meaning. Truth. Community. God. Rest from the journey. A home.”
And it was all true. It was all true. Meaning was there. Truth. Community. God. A home.
But it also said another thing, and quite explicitly as I progressed through the steps that every person goes through as they buy into the system of belief I had bought into: “The price is your soul. You have to give yourself completely to this. No part of you is left behind.”
I don’t think I fully appreciated or understood that until recently. Which is saying a lot, because the last five or so years have been a slow, then rapid, exit from that world. First letting go of a few beliefs, trying to combine it with some Modern Orthodox ones, and removing some of the clothes I had taken on (the black hat, the black jacket). Which led to the rabbi of my congregation telling me that what I did was worse than rape. Which led to me finding a new synagogue, Modern Orthodox as well. Which led to me backing a controversial choice they had made, which led to so much backlash that I still suffer from the trauma of it. Which led to me seeing more problems. Which led to me seeing the rise of Trumpism with absolute horror. Which led to more backlash. Which led to me leaving more, but joining and then helping to lead a progressive Orthodox political movement. Which led to further backlash. Which led to…
My point is that even through all that, some part of me held on for dear life to the meaning that this world had given me. I don’t think I was even fully conscious of it, but even my rebellions, from the creative community I had helped build to the political activities to even the time I walked into the headquarters of the movement and recorded myself calling out a rabbi for standing with Trump and getting punched in the face… it was all part of me holding onto some version of that identity.
It was only recently that I finally, truly let go. I moved. I left it all behind. My wife and I had had enough of it all, and my job was offering me a way out, and although when I first joined I had told them there was no way I’d move, it came over me one day that I had nothing keeping me. I was out. I was done. I was spent.
And it was only then that I truly felt the effects of what had occurred.
Because suddenly, I am so empty. I am hollowed out.
Who am I?
What do I believe?
Why am I here?
Where is my community?
When will I find meaning?
The questions that I had thought I had resolved so long ago are suddenly back. As if I am back on my bed in college, hoping for something to change. Except now I believe in even less, feel even less, know even less.
At the time, I had a relatively strong belief in God. I believed that there was an energy to the universe, being directed and driven in a way that we could not comprehend. I believed in meaning, and in truth.
Now… I’m genuinely confused as to what I believe. I’ve been working so hard to extricate myself from my old world that I didn’t realize how it had attached itself to all these ideas that first moved me, and that, at least for now, it’s taken them with it when I finally demanded my soul back.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in anything. Inside of me, there’s this near-bizarre attachment to the idea that I believe in God and that I am Jewish. These seem to be two incontrovertible realities that, even if I wanted to, I cannot shake.
But the story around these two things and all that once surrounded them is that, since the world I left demanded everything from me, every bit of my beliefs and selfhood got wrapped up in that world. I could no longer tell the truth from the illusion, and so the only way to leave was to let it all go.
And that has left me unmoored. At a complete loss of meaning, and without any idea who I am.
There is another side to this, though.
It might be easy to hear all this and think that it is a sad story. But here’s the thing that even I did not expect to happen so quickly: I am happier, healthier, and more myself than ever.
I suppose that might sound confusing, since I described myself as hollowed out only a moment ago. And that description is very true.
Let’s go over what happened: I felt alone, fearful of a life without meaning. I finally found a life of meaning, but that meaning was bought with a total sublimation of my selfhood, given over completely to the cause, community, and belief system of Chabad Hasidic Judaism.
After a lot of pain and eye-opening realizations, I began to let go of that system. And that meant losing that sense of meaning that came with it.
But it also meant something else: the return of my selfhood. My agency. My soul.
This may sound vague, so allow me to make it more concrete.
I only moved 4 months ago. Moving should be the most stressful time in your life. Add onto that the restriction of a COVID-19 world, with very few ways to connect with people in our new habitat, and you’d think I’d feel more lonely and in pain than ever.
That’s not what happened. Instead, I’ve felt less stressed, despite the stress of the move. I’ve felt less alone, despite knowing no one and no longer running a community. I am spending more fulfilling time with my family. I am writing again. I am more confident than I have been in ages, a confidence that for the first time perhaps in my entire life is not predicted on the approval or praise of others. I am succeeding at work in a way that I never have before. I am growing, I am learning.
And, deep down, I feel like me. Despite not knowing who I am. Despite still missing that sense of meaning. Despite knowing that at some point I’ll have to face the questions that for now I am avoiding so that I may heal.
I am a person again.
This is not such a crazy thing to balance against the loss of meaning that comes from leaving a religious community and belief system if you see it from the angle of the stories we have been told since we were young. The soul-selling stories.
The whole reason the devil is so enticing in these stories is the same reason that one might think it’s not worth the pain of leaving a community to be ourselves. The devil tricks us into thinking we can live in a world with all the positive and none of the negative. Where everything makes sense, the world isn’t messy, and any problems we face can now be overcome through whatever product he’s selling.
And so we sell our soul to him, without realizing that when we do so, we’re signing a contract that lets go of selfhood in exchange for a cheap product that doesn’t actually work in a world that is by definition messy, difficult, and confusing.
Is it any wonder, then, that as the world gets scarier, messier, and more confusing, that we are seeing various cultish ideologies and movements crop up seemingly out of nowhere? A cult is not just crazy-eyed fools in the woods drinking poison Kool-aid. It is any community or movement that attempts to tell us that all we must do is give over our selfhood and agency in exchange for easy answers, blindly following leaders, and putting the whole over the individual.
All of that is just the devil buying our souls from us.
And in that context, as in every story, when the truth of the exchange is revealed, we understand that it is never, ever worth it.
Because the truth is that this idea of “meaning” is not the true meaning that Viktor Frankl speaks of. It is a cheap imitation, a knockoff.
Meaning can not come from outside of us. It has to start from the soul and move outwards.
This is part of why this idea of not knowing who I am is no longer quite as scary as I once thought it was: because I don’t need to know. I am. And from that, the rest will flow.
Trying to do it the opposite way is like trying to put light in a box: it’s not possible, and it only leads to darkness and confinement.
Most people consider the story of Adam and Eve the first devil temptation story. The first self-aware man and woman on earth are living a perfect life, and along comes a snake to tempt them with the idea that if they only eat from the fruit of a tree that they’ll find truth. They eat the fruit, and suddenly the world becomes their enemy, a danger that they feel so deeply that they immediately cover their naked bodies. God is angry, and kicks them out for their original sin.
There is, however, a Hasidic twist on this story.
According to the mystical traditions of Judaism, every single thing that happens is God’s will. Even the bad. And so, when the snake offered them this fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, it was actually God’s will that they would fall for it. God, in other words, wanted them to eat from the tree.
In this telling, the reason God wanted this was because the only way for humanity to truly reach its potential was for it to descend into a world where good and evil no longer make sense, but are mixed up and confused. Where we will have to wrestle with the mess day in and day out, trying every day to reach higher for God through the mess.
In that telling, it is the opposite of every devil story. The snake didn’t take away Adam and Eve’s souls. He gave them a chance to finally own their souls. To know through confusion and mess. In so doing, he freed them from a too-perfect, endless reality of goodness.
Today, I can’t help but think that this is the story we should be listening to. One where God wants us to live in the mess. Wants us to acknowledge the confusion. Wants us to face ourselves with honesty.
Because when we do that, we have ownership over ourselves and our souls. And as scary as it might be to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers, there is nothing on earth more valuable than the fruit of selfhood.