The “Pathology” of Life

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true – or is it something worse?”
Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Since becoming a pulpit Rabbi I have intentionally avoided writing about my personal life, but recent news prompts me to share some ideas which I suspect will resonate with at least some of my loyal readers. As some of you may know I recently applied for PhD programs in Religious Ethics, with the intent of focusing on the relatively unexplored ethical tradition of Rabbinic Judaism. With two M.A.’s, life experience, and a clear program of study I considered myself to be a decent candidate – certainly as good as anyone else who would apply. However, spots for these fellowshipped positions are extremely limited. One program to which I applied accepts an average of two students a year, though occasionally will go up to three or down to one. In a bad economy where more students are applying to graduate schools rather than going out into “the real world,” these programs are inundated with applicants. The other school to which I applied received over 10,000 total applications for graduate school study.

Thus it was not a complete surprised when I learned that I was not accepted into either of the two programs to which I had applied. To be sure, my GPA and GRE scores could have been higher but even so this would not have guaranteed admission. If potential advisors are not interested in an applicant’s chosen field of research, they have plenty of other willing potential students from which to choose. Furthermore, despite my academic background in Talmud, I intentionally did not choose to apply through the Rabbinics department because my interest was more in learning the ethical theory (and as I found out later the Rabbinics departments only had one opening). Since a PhD in an academic discipline rarely results in a significant financial payoff, I considered it pointless to pursue one unless there is at least some personal interest in the process.

Which brings me to my point of why I applied for Religious Ethics in the first place. For many years I had thought about doing a PhD but couldn’t quite determine the direction. It was after I first gave my class in Economics and Social Justice in my shul that I realized Religious Ethics was not only a field in which I was interested, but that it was an area in which I could contribute.

When I researched programs I found two universities which not only had a program in Religious Ethics, but also had a significant Talmud department. I was ecstatic. From everything I read it seemed that either institution would be a plausible fit, but more than that, it just felt right, that this was what I was supposed to do with my life – that this was the path I was supposed to take.

Applying was stressful; I had even delayed applying one year due to being in a suboptimal emotional state. I managed to overcome all fears of rejection, edited 3 old papers for writing samples, and dealt with needless drama involving a recommender, and still everything got in on time. Given how much I invested in applying, I’m holding up surprisingly well. I’m not crushed, not curled up in a fetal position wondering where my life went wrong, and not even regretting my decision to apply and setting myself up for the eventual rejection.

But even though I am disappointed, in some ways I think I’m more confused than anything else. After all, why would I be pointed in a direction with such a strong intuition, forced to overcome a whole lot of anxiety, and yet not actualize the goal. Why would I have the feeling that this PhD was part of my Path when clearly it was not meant to be?

Naturally I don’t have any useful answers, but I do think the question is itself important. We’d like to think that we’re on a path and that maybe we have some guidance in choosing which path we ought to take. Sometimes we’re given opportunities and other times we’re given intuitions which would help direct our choices. But what do these opportunities and intuitions really mean? Superficially it feels like these are directions we ought to take, but in reality these are just emotions – subjective and open to interpretation.

I can say this; I’m not going to obsess over not getting in, even if it means not pursuing a PhD in the foreseeable future. But what I will do is meditate on the emotions I’ve experienced and try to understand the signals I’ve received and their possible meaning. I don’t suspect I’ll find any substantive answers, but I do feel it is a question worth pondering.


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