Your story is inspiring; especially, your abashedly questioning authority and tradition, and the fact that, as you say, "I do as many of the mitzvot as I can, and about those I cannot do (because I’m not ready or because I have studied them thoroughly and still find them impossible to perform) I say, "Not yet.""; both of these are not only healthy, but exceedingly rare, and it is inspiring that you have healthily retained these traits.
Anyway, I'm struck by many of the parallels I see with my own life.
I was raised "traditional-ish", as I put. Basically, we davened on the "High Holydays", we had a seder and kept kosher for Passover (Well, kind of; my mother thought that hametz was anything that had yeast or leavening agents, so we'd dutifully check ingredients labels for leavening agents. My mother is a chemist, so she found such agents where no one else would, but she says she never understood why wine was kosher for Passover, given the yeast. Years later, when I became Orthodox, all would become clear.), and kept somewhat kosher (no pork, no shellfish, no meat and milk), etc. As for hashkafa (weltanschauung), I had no lacking there: the Sunday school's education was pitiful, but my mother didn't neglect to teach me herself what it meant to be a Jew; ohr lagoyim, mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh, l'taken olam b'malchut Shakai, all that jazz. My mother herself is the product of successive Reform and Conservative conversions, but her story is a separate one.
At some point, during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades, in 2004, I decided that since I already considered myself Jewish, and I considered this a mission and responsibility to be discharged conscientiously, I decided that I really ought to learn exactly what this entailed. First, I started wearing tzitzit and reading a few books (Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Everyman's Talmud by Rev. Abraham Cohen, and later the Hertz and Stone humashim). Soon, I started eating only kosher meat, and soon after that, general food products with hechsherim. Eventually, after perhaps half a year, I started wearing a kippah. Things began to snowball, and I finally decided that I was becoming "Orthodox".
During the summer between eleventh and twelfth, I decided I'd like to actually meet some Orthodox Jews!, so I went to Camp Sdei Chemed, a youth travel camp (in Israel) led by Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum zt"l. There is when I first realized that I'd need a conversion of my own to truly qualify as Jewish, but I put this on the backburner for some time. People began to ask me what I'd do after high school graduation, and I'd invariably reply, "university". Someone told me, however, that I ought to consider yeshiva, and I figured, "why not?". So off to Machon Meir I went after graduation, where I am still learning. There also I did my conversion with the Israeli Rabbinate, in February 2007.
Like Shimshonit, certain laws and teachings would trouble me. But, as she says, "If people like Rahel [Berkovits] and my other teachers could hold the Torah up confidently to the glaring light of my scrutiny and criticism and still believe in its value and ability to teach, then perhaps I too could come to see it as they did." I mostly learned German and British Neo-Orthodox authorities (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, etc.), who tended to be very ethically and humanitarianly oriented individuals with PhDs in philosophy and Semitics, so I knew that if they remained Orthodox despite all the (apparently) unethical teachings and contradictions with science and history, I knew that I could too.
Today, the more I've learned, the more scandals and unethical practices I've learned of being perpetrated by the Orthodox. A glance at Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg's letters to Professor Samuel Atlast (http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/TU7_Shapiro.pdf) and at Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz's Eyes to See (http://www.urimpublications.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=UP&Product_Code=Eyes), Dr. Yitzchok Levine's "Orthodoxy, Then and Now" (http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/38591), and the recent sexual abuse and Agriprocessors scandals, the Haredi stifling of free thought and modern learning (witness the Rabbi Slifkin affair), a glance at any of these, and it will be clear how all this has severely threatened, and continue to threaten, my commitment to Orthodoxy. But like Jeremiah, the Torah would burn within my bones if ever I were to try to cease practicing it. And I know that few good rabbis out there still exist, and I still follow the path of the German Neo-Orthodox, even if precious few others do as well. Like Shimshonit, "I choose my community and my friends within it carefully, making sure that eccentricity and non-conformity in non-essentials are welcome."
On the other hand, Shimshonit says, "...to embrace the observance of mitzvot and halachah is a powerful act of free will. ...I and my husband had more than once been accused by our secular or non-Jewish families of having become like sheep, mindlessly handing control over our lives to a deity or system of which we have no real knowledge or control. And yet for us, a convert and a ba’al teshuvah, it was quite the opposite. ...". For myself, I still feel a bit of the contrary. I still feel as proud as ever at some of the ethical implications of Orthodoxy, such as on issues of sexuality, but, on the other hand, I sometimes feel as if my Orthodoxy compromises my otherwise rational and scientific mindset. In general, I am very skeptical and intellectual, but I cannot say that Orthodoxy is altogether rationally convincing. In every part of my life, reason rules over all else, but I cannot but compartmentalize with Orthodoxy. I feel as if I am betraying a bit of myself, but again, the fire of Sinai burns within my bones, and I have no other choice.
Update: in reply to my last paragraph, Shimshonit replies,
Michael: Thanks for sharing your story. I admit to feeling sometimes like compartmentalizing in Orthodoxy is dishonest, but to some degree, that can’t be helped. My rav in America used to explain Judaism’s more illogical or irrational practices by saying, “Halacha creates its own reality.” No person completely and irrevocably wedded to logic could possibly do everything we do. Those people call themselves “Reconstructionists.” But at the same time, they miss out on a huge amount of the good Judaism embodies–the spirituality, the compassion, the sense of community, the depth of the texts’ meanings. I can’t even begin to fathom going back to that state of “If it can’t be proven as fact, I won’t have any of it.” That’s too dark, too lonely, too meaningless. So I’m prepared to compromise a little of my skepticism for this much greater beauty.In turn, I reply
This is an important observation. You say, “That’s too dark, too lonely, too meaningless. So I’m prepared to compromise a little of my skepticism for this much greater beauty.”; indeed, if we are totally rational and empirical, we will lose out on much of Judaism’s spirituality. At some point, we must make a leap beyond rationality.
Of course, this (viz. lack of rationality) is dangerous, because it makes us subject to superstition and obscurantism.
On the other than, being overly rational threatens to threaten our closeness to G-d and spirituality. See my comments in my reply to the article at http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/challenge-reb-zalman-schachter-shalomi.
There (at the cited URL, and also at http://michaelmakovi.blogspot.com/2009/03/challenge-from-reb-zalman-schachter.html), I write,
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes, "So my challenge to my friends in your camp is that while we want to get rid of superstition, we must be aware of the new emerging cosmologies that point to spiritual realms beyond our own physical one. Ideas contained in the Kabbalah should be taken seriously. Without a vital and irrational weekday prayer life, connected with the living God, observance will not be a sustainable part of the life of the people who participate in centrist Orthodoxy."
Now, I might disagree with his insistence on Kabbalah specifically, I myself, at least, am highly skeptical and suspicious of anything Kabbalistic. That is, I, like Rav Hirsch, question whether Judaism properly will deal with anything theosophical or thaumaturgical.
Moreover, Rambam and Rav Hirsch (according to the interpretation of Rabbi Shelomo Danziger), and the rest of the rationalist school, would not have held by anything Kabbalistic per se, in terms of their davening kavanot. Rambam obviously did not have (or, at least, did not accept as legitimate), what we today would call Kabbalah, while Rav Hirsch treated Kabbalah like we treat the Midrash Rabbah, as an allegory. (Dr. Nachum Klafter has pointed out that Rav Hirsch is similar to an ikkar b'tachtonim [temporal and material, this-worldly] interpretation of Habad, while similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, following Rabbi Dessler, believes Rav Hirsch interpreted Kabbalah as a metaphorical analysis of psychology.)
Nevertheless, the rabbi is certainly correct that we do need to have some otherwordly sense of G-d's presence, beyond the mundane physicality of this world. Now, there are caveats to this; Dr. Klafter has pointed out that to a rationalist like Rabbi Hirsch, material actions in this world *are* spiritual; to give tzedaka to a poor person, is as metaphysically transcendent as a mystic's meditation. But however one achieves it, one certainly must have some sort of spiritual connection with G-d, by whichever means and route one finds appropriate for himself. One way or another - whether by deed, by meditation, by study, by prayer - one ultimately must feel that G-d and he have some sort of relationship. (I'll prefer to see the deed as the highest connection to G-d; as a Habad rabbi I heard yesterday put it, if G-d's will and His essence are one, then by doing mitzvot, fulfilling His will, and making His will into our will, we are actually joining with G-d Himself, if one can speak in such a way. I'd also see tikkun olam, the practical temporal and material rectification of the physical and sociological reality, as His highest aim; as that same Habad rabbi put it, "hitava Hashem dira b'tachonim" [Hashem craved for a dwelling place in the lower worlds], and, as Rav Hirsch is fond of noting in connection with the sanctification of mundane physicality, "ikkar shechina b'tachtonim" [the Shechina principally rests among the lower beings]. As Hazal put it, "sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you", by using the mundane for holiness, as Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook alike emphasize.)
So I would disagree with Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi that this must all be Kabbalistic, but I agree with him that one way or another, we must have some sort of spiritual connection with G-d. The danger he points out is real; if we spend too much energy combating superstition and intellectual obscurantism, we are liable to become overly critical, overly intellectual, and overly skeptical.
I myself am naturally not a very spiritual individual in the first place (I was attracted to Orthodoxy due to a combination of intellectual "ethical monotheism", as well as loyalty to tradition, but not due to any spiritual or "religious" feeling), but I feel that my constant battle to discern obscurantism and parochialism and chauvinism and ignorance in the Orthodox world, has caused a sort of auto-immune reaction in myself; I am almost afraid, I think, to feel anything spiritual or religious, for fear that this will descend into emotional and intellectually-unsound charismatic cultism, of the sort that pervades Orthodoxy today. That is, I am so afraid of becoming overly superstitious and irrational, that I have fled in the opposite direction. Part of this is due to my inborn inclination (I have joked that if I weren't Orthodox, I'd be an ultra-left secularist; meanwhile, my rabbi likes to jokingly make fun of me for my Yekke-ish emotional distance), but part of it is due to overcompensation, to avoid that which I fear. Rabbi Shechter-Shalomi observes, "When I read your [Rabbi Angel's] article in Conversations 3 that dealt with superstition, with which I agree in the main, I felt the absence of a devotional approach to prayer.", and I believe his observation has much truth in it, based on my own personal experience.