My Spiritual Trip To Wendy's
How a choice to eat non-kosher food for the first time in 13 years shaped my journey away from Orthodox Judaism.
I didn’t think it would happen at Wendy’s.
In truth, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen again. But certainly not at a Wendy’s drive through.
It had been months of flirting with losing religion, and I had finally started to take the baby steps that lead to the full on flight from the beliefs I had turned my life inside out for 13 years earlier.
Those 13 years ago, I was a young man trying to figure out life. I was feeling lost, confused, and bewildered by traumatizing experiences. I also felt, very deeply, that there was a God. I was dying for a community that could see what I saw. And I found that community in Hasidic Judaism.
13 years later, here I was, finally considering eating non-kosher food. It was, in a way, the final block that would mean I no longer considered myself Orthodox (I had already given up on the Hasidic part years earlier).
In the Orthodox world, there tend to be two areas of observance that are considered the pillars of what one does in order to “be” Orthodox. The first was Shabbat, and I had already found small ways to avoid that, such as small transgressions like turning lights off and on when my children were not looking, and watching TV on my phone when everyone had fallen asleep. All of this painfully accepted by my wife, as we strained to figure out where I was going, all while I was denying even to myself where it was inevitably leading.
The second is eating kosher. It is interesting, in a way, how eating kosher and observing Shabbat meticulously are these pillars. There are a myriad of reasons given, but either way, one of the ironic side effects is that for many of us that begin to leave our belief system have only to knock down these two in order to declare to ourselves and possibly to others that it’s over.
In retrospect, I guess that’s what my trip to Wendy’s was all about.
I had been side eyeing non-kosher restaurants for weeks. I can’t even remember what had initiated it, other than a sort of insistence that I just wanted to do it once. It wasn’t even something I planned to do regularly: it was more of a desperate attempt to take control of something in my spiritual life, even if it meant breaking away as opposed to building up.
After all, I had let go of so much. And I was sick (so sick) of living out of inertia. Inertia had been the key word of my religious life since I had started to step away, and the more that I was observing just for the sake of observing, the more it felt like I was engaging in some upside down version of blasphemy, where everything religious was being done out of fear of what it would mean if things changed than out of any conviction.
I felt imprisoned. What would my wife think. What would others who followed my religious travails think? What would happen on that inevitable day when I’d have to find a way to explain this to my children?
Easier, in a way, to just keep going. To just live a life that felt empty and wrong, but at least would not hurt anyone or throw off their sense of reality.
Maybe that’s why I finally drove to one of the places I had been side-eyeing after an argument with my wife. It was a convenient excuse. I was angry, and I could blame my failure on her, or so my subconscious mind justified itself to itself.
(It is so hard to write this. I have been spending years writing with certainty, and trying to convince others of my own conviction. This is a moment in time where I’m taking a breath to admit my own flawed nature, and just how messy this all is. But as my wise therapist mentioned to me, when you are in a state of confusion, and you write, well then you should write about your confusion. Welcome to my confusion).
I drove there almost without thinking. I didn’t want to let the implications hit me. It had been quite literally 13 years since I had purposefully eaten something non-kosher, and comprehending what that might mean for me, for my family, for my children, for my sense of identity, was too much. All I knew was that I was on some journey, and I was tired of delaying it. Better to bite into it and swallow it than to let it sit at the edge of my tongue.
The drive, then, wasn’t a rebellion, really. It wasn’t really because of any argument or anger. It wasn’t about spicy chicken nuggets. It was about the decision to admit to myself that I even was on a journey. To look at the road ahead of me, and to admit that I was choosing the path, and in so doing to regain control of the wheel.
What happened on that drive, though, I didn’t think would happen. Not there. Not then.
It had been years since I felt God.
All the confusion that had come with my slow exit from Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism meant that the original connection I had felt so deeply to God had been mixed up with what I had let go of. And the more that inertial Judaism became my observance system rather than out of choice, the further God felt.
God was still there. But She was like a friend who had moved: my other friends spoke about It, and I knew that He was in theory a reality, but not seeing Her made it less and less real in my heart and mind. We were losing touch, and ultimately that meant that as much as I desperately wanted to reconnect with my friend, the distance between us made it impossible to truly feel Their presence.
God was there, but we were out of touch.
So, I guess, I didn’t expect that on that drive to Wendy’s that She’d show up.
It’s the feeling of the ineffable that Heschel speaks about: the Hidden Truth that overwhelms you with awe. The kind of feeling you might have when you see a beautiful sunset or your child at play: a complete and utter connection with all things that so overwhelms you that you can’t even speak, you just need to let the infinite wash over you.
That’s what happened when God visited me on my drive to Wendy’s.
The actual trip itself, in the end, was something out of a Dumb White Guy comedy, where when I arrived I suddenly realized that I had no idea how to order drive through because it had been 13 years, and first I asked the woman to give me a minute to decide (which led to a few minutes), then finally asked for spicy chicken nuggets and fries, to which she responded, “Uh… what size?” And then I didn’t remember that there were two windows, one for paying and one for getting your food, so I first forgot to give my payment and then sat there at the first window waiting for my food to arrive.
But even then, even then, there God was, inside of me and all around me and in my car and pressing the gas, and in my voice and from the poor woman taking my order.
It started on the way, and it went with me through the drive through, and it stayed with me as I tried to find a beach to eat on and ended up stepping in a bunch of wet grass and realizing that the entrance was closed and then getting back in my car and eating like an idiot.
All that time, the sense of the ineffable, that there was Something underneath It all, stuck with me. God overwhelmed my senses. Even when I took a bite of those absolutely horrible chicken nuggets (did you know fast food doesn’t actually take like meat?), non-kosher and all, God was there.
Why? I imagine there a million theological and psychological reasons one might give. To be honest, they don’t concern me deeply at the moment.
What matters to me more is what I have come to believe it meant about the road I was on.
Almost every choice I had made as a religious person, whether it was taking on more observances or wearing this or that or even letting go… at a certain point on my journey, they all became inertial choices. Choices not made out of true, deep choice, but out of some outside force (or imagined outside force). I felt forced out of the community (no matter how conscious the decision was, I didn’t actually want it). I felt pushed to stay observant after I left.
When religious observance became a fear of man rather than a fear of God, it was no longer religious: it was no longer about God. It was about others. It was about the limitations of the physical world, and not the unlimited possibilities of reality.
That drive to Wendy’s, then, was in a bizarre way the most religious choice I had made in years. It was one where I made a spiritual decision (albeit a rebellious one) and stuck to it despite my fears. In a weird way, it was the most spiritual act I had undertaken since first choosing to begin observing Shabbat.
And I think that’s why God visited me. I think that’s why the ineffable reality overwhelmed me for the first time in years. Because I had made the decision to choose spirituality for the first time in ages, and, more importantly, because I valued a pursuit of truth over a convenient life.
The fears are still there. I still don’t know how (or when or whether) to talk to my children about the changes I find myself exploring. Although my wife and I have come to a much better place in regards to our journey together, we are still trying to figure out how it will be lived out as a marriage, especially since neither of us even knows where I am going as opposed to what I’m leaving. I still feel utterly confused and alone when it comes to the Jewish community, one that I vacillate between communicating with and trying to utterly leave behind so I can pursue deeper passions.
I am confused, I am lost, I am stumbling, and I don’t feel prepared to deal with any of this as a husband and father, not to mention a human.
And yet, that trip to Wendy’s stays with me. A reminder that, perhaps, the certainty I had once felt was more problematic than my confusion ever will be. After all, if I trace it back, it was during the certainty when that feeling of ineffability started (Something that many in such communities try to ascribe to a sort of broken analogy to love, that somehow we feel love less as we grow, and it becomes more “mature.” In reality, I love my wife more than I ever have, and every time I look at her I see something more infinitely beautiful and precious than I have ever witnessed. (So I am worried about their marriages, but that’s for another article).).
The more certain and defined things become, the less space there is for the deep uncertainty that comes with awe. And while I am sad that it took a failed Wendy’s trip to realize it, I am grateful that God chose any time at all to remind me of that.
Today, God still visits me. Not so often still, but I feel Her soft presence surround me more and more. I hope that, soon, I will realize that He never moved, but was guiding even this journey all along.