‘WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?’ BY RABBANIT SHAYNA GOLDBERG
A universal experience of human nature is that we feel a deep sense of connection when we see people like us on TV and in movies, or encounter people like us in magazines or in the books that we read. Moreover, when those people not only look and sound like us, but their struggles also appear to mirror those that we are experiencing in our own life, we feel particularly validated.
I mention this having just finished reading Rabbanit Shayna Goldberg’s book, ‘What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life’s Crossroads and in Everyday Living’ (Maggid Books, 2021), because this is the first Jewish book that I have ever read which – through the skillfully written scenarios and decisions faced by religious women and men at different stages in their lives – authentically represents the life experiences, religious struggles and spiritual aspirations of Modern Orthodox Jews.
But beyond ‘representation’, there are two additional elements in ‘What Do You Really Want?’ which deserve particular mention. One is the fact that Rabbanit Goldberg coaches the reader towards independence in decision-making, and towards making choices out of trust rather than fear. As she explains, ‘when people are taught to trust themselves and their deepest and truest instincts…they almost always make better decisions and end up happier and more satisfied and fulfilled as a result’ (p. xxiv). And the other is that unlike other Jewish authors who either avoid speaking about themselves or who carefully curate the stories which they choose to relate about themselves, Rabbanit Goldberg is truly vulnerable with her readers – as expressed by the fact that she shares some of the situations and decisions which she herself has experienced. In doing so, this further validates the reader who may be facing similar decisions or challenges.
In terms of the structure of ‘What Do You Really Want?’, it is divided into four sections: The first, which is titled ‘The role of trust in personal decision making’, explores common fears and elements of good decision-making, and it is here where Rabbanit Goldberg highlights the difference between decisions made out of fear, and those made out of trust. The second, titled ‘Decision-making case scenarios’, presents many different scenarios and decisions faced by religious men and women which are organized chronologically/thematically into: ‘school choices’, ‘career options’, ‘aliya’, ‘use of time’, ‘personal finances’, ‘therapy’, ‘religious observance’, ‘dating and relationships’, ‘engagement’, ‘having children’, ‘divorce’, ‘adult children’ and ‘retirement’. The third, titled ‘Employing trust in everyday living’ offers perspectives and tips about trusting the decisions which we make. And the fourth and final section titled ‘After the decision… now what?’, acknowledges the fact that many of our decisions are not simple, but also how ‘God created each of us with the ability to make our own choices. As such, He necessarily believes deeply in our capability to do so’ (p. 146).
Having described a little about the goal, method and structure of ‘What Do You Really Want?’, I would now like to explain why this book, though not exclusive to Modern Orthodox Jews, is particularly refreshing for a Modern Orthodox reader.
Significantly, Rabbanit Goldberg – herself a teacher and the mashgiha ruchanit at Midreshet Migdal Oz (an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion), a contributing editor to Deracheha, as well as a yoetzet halacha – brings a wealth of experience from the world of Modern Orthodoxy to ‘What Do You Really Want?’. And the reason why this is so valuable is because the majority of English Torah books speak from a different ideological perspective. For example, they often devalue the objective value of secular studies. They often espouse how the ‘ideal’ dating period before marriage should preferably be a matter of weeks. They often speak of halacha as being monolithic. And they rarely acknowledge how situations can exist where – other than when faced with physical danger – a woman might choose to cease having children. The problem with this is that when young men – and especially young women – read such books which do not reflect their ideological worldview, or where they or the hierarchy of priorities which they have been educated towards are not only not represented but are often dismissed, it can be very confusing, very frustrating, and very harmful to their self-identity and their self-confidence.
For example, how many English Torah books are prepared to say, as Rabbanit Goldberg does, that ‘for many women, covering one’s hair is a difficult delicate issue’? How many validate the variety of approaches on this issue? And how many emphasize the importance for a woman to adopt a halachic standard which ‘she is ready to take responsibility for and could commit to for the long term’? (p. 67). As Rabbanit Golberg later explains, ‘I tell my students that it would not be intellectually honest to teach that there is only one halakhic approach to a sensitive topic if that is not truly the case. Not only is it not honest, but it is also potentially dangerous…Presenting the diversity of opinions allows each student to understand that the halakha is not monolithic’ (p. 125).
How many books about marriage are prepared to say that, ‘part of deciding whom to marry is deciding which flaws we are willing to live with’ (p. 76), and are ready to acknowledge that ‘we can absolutely love, admire, and respect certain sides of a person while still finding other traits of their less fulfilling’ (ibid.)?
How many books written by a Rabbanit honestly share their inner thoughts which they had while dating in terms of how to know when to lower boundaries and share a little more of who they are with the person they wish to marry? (see p. 89). Yet, as Rabbanit Goldberg explains later on, ‘when mentors are ready and willing to share their own doubts, failings and limitations, students learn that their role models, too, are human but nevertheless navigate life’s challenges, and therefore so can they’ (p. 129).
And how many books, rather than trying to present ‘the’ answer to a given question, empower the reader to trust themselves ‘to live with tension’ (p. 151), while helping readers understand how: ‘we can embrace tension, and even a dose of discomfort, without fear. We can accept that life is complicated, even confusing, and that there are competing values that clash with each other and can’t always be mutually satisfied. We can trust ourselves to be capable of owning the decision that we make and of explaining them to ourselves, rather than fear confronting what they might reveal about who we really are’ (p. 153)?
As a spiritual coach and halachic consultant, and in contrast to some other teachers, Rabbis and Rabbaniot who prefer ‘giving’ or ‘telling’ their questioners an answer, I strongly believe in emphasizing human autonomy and personal responsibility in personal and halachic decision-making. In ‘What Do You Really Want?’, Rabbanit Goldberg emphasizes the importance of this approach and she explains that, ‘no one is better positioned to have made a good decision for ourselves than we are. We are the ones who know ourselves best. We have intimate knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, and our past successes and failures. Therefore, we are uniquely suited to weigh all of the different aspects of a decision and to think about them from our specific perspective’ (p. 146).
‘What Do You Really Want?’ is a wise, sensitive and empowering book. It speaks to the real-life situations and decisions that each of us face, and it reminds us that part of the wisdom that should influence our decisions is the wisdom inherent within ourselves. Yet, perhaps more important than anything else, ‘What Do You Really Want?’ reminds us that ‘trusting ourselves means knowing that whatever stands before us, we are up for the task’ (p. 157).