My Personal Struggle with Unreasonable Belief
For years, I have been studying Orthodox Judaism and exploring the question of how it is that modern, highly educated people can make unreasonable faith claims. Specifically, how is it that Modern Orthodox Jews, in the face of overwhelming evidence and logical arguments, believe that God revealed the entirety of the Pentateuch, word for word, to Moses at Sinai and/or in the wilderness? How do these people deal with the facts and arguments that challenge this central religious belief of Torah-Mi-Sinai?
Modern scholarship has concluded that the Torah was not written by one author in the time of Moses, but that its sources were written over a period of hundreds of years and then combined and redacted to form the Torah as we now have it. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence for this, the academic model has made little if any impact on the way Orthodox people study the Torah… even Modern Orthodox people. Why and how do so many Modern Orthodox individuals who participate in the modern world so fully, turn to fundamentalist apologetics in order to justify their belief in Torah-Mi-Sinai?
These questions fascinate me as a psychologist interested in the workings of the mind, and in the relationship between beliefs and emotions and I wrote a book on the subject: The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs. The book was written before the development of TheTorah.com, which I have been following with interest since its inception. Admittedly, my fascination with these questions is not only professional but very personal. In this essay, I will share my journey from a Modern Orthodox yeshivah bachur to an observant agnostic professor of Jewish education.
A colleague of mine who had heard an early version of a paper I had written on the psychology of Orthodox belief said to me ‘‘Sol, what’s your agenda?’’ He was probing why I was bothering to address the issue. Was it simply intellectual curiosity about an interesting psychological phenomenon—the compartmentalization of experience—that is part of the consciousness of the modern Orthodox? This question induced me to reflect more honestly about why indeed I was so interested in this question, and whether I had an “agenda” of which I myself was not fully aware.
On one level, as a psychologist, the phenomenon of compartmentalization does fascinate me. But upon reflection, I acknowledge that I would not be particularly intrigued with the psychology of belief per se if the unreasonable belief in no way impacted upon me or people close to me. Although it is true that the more I study the phenomenon and its psychological and philosophical complexity the more intellectually interested in it I become, nevertheless, it is something deeper that troubles me and spurs me on.
I grew up Orthodox but now I am a doubter. Thus, in exploring the psychology of belief, I am justifying to myself, in a psychological sense, and to “others” (such as Orthodox family members), in an intellectual sense, my “heresy” vis-a-vis Orthodoxy.
Moreover, as part of this process I am also expressing my latent resentment toward those teachers and rabbis whom I feel, in retrospect, had either been dishonest, disparaging, or demeaning in the way in which they responded to the religious doubts and questions that I had raised during my years of adolescence and early adulthood. Too often, their comments were aimed at impugning my (and many others’) character, intelligence, and motives when challenging the Orthodox ideological fold and rejecting its doctrines and its claims to authority.
My Struggle with Orthodox Belief
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home where I was taught to love—and did deeply love—the Orthodox way of life. Fear of divine punishment was not part of my upbringing, although I definitely was meant to feel guilty if I violated halakha as my parents, especially my mother, understood it. I studied in modern orthodox day schools through high school followed by seven years in Haredi yeshivot in the US and in Israel.
From childhood through my early 20s, I was Orthodox in practice and belief, and consciously aspired, from my teenage years, to be devout. My religious doubts actually began quite early, perhaps when I was thirteen or so, and I will try to reconstruct some of them.
I found it difficult to accept the idea that the Jews were chosen by God for a special relationship. Then, when I became aware of modern biblical scholarship, my belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses at Sinai was challenged. I was also troubled by what troubled Job—that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.
At the same time as I was struggling with these issues, I was influenced by my encounter with literature, specifically, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I found that these coming of age and loss of (Christian) faith novels described much of my own feelings and experiences. Throw into this incubating cauldron of doubt the theory of evolution and an encounter with David Hume on miracles, as well as other philosophers studied in college, and I had more than enough to make me wonder whether what I was being taught to believe in and socialized to practice at home and at yeshiva was indeed true and binding.
These doubts and the existential crisis that they engendered were powerful and ongoing, if waxing and waning, experiences for a good number of years. Yet I spent much energy trying to defend Orthodoxy for myself against these doubts, or even in denial of the conflict. I vacillated between faith and skepticism.
My Yeshiva Experience
In my senior year in college, I decided that if Orthodox Judaism was to be the way of life for me, then I had to embrace it more fully. I decided to go to Israel to study in an advanced level yeshiva and immerse myself fully in learning Torah and Talmud—give Orthodox Judaism, as understood and inculcated in the world of the yeshiva, a chance, so to speak, to prove itself. Eager to learn, I flew to Israel a few hours after I took my last final exam, not being interested in graduation ceremonies.
The yeshiva experience in Israel didn’t buttress my faith. On the contrary, I was so disillusioned by the unethical behavior of some of the leaders of the particular yeshiva in which I was studying that it only added another reason to question Orthodoxy. (“If this is what Torah learning can produce, it can’t be divine revelation!” I said to myself.) However, even as my struggle between faith and doubt continued, I maintained my Orthodox ritual observances, since I found many attractive aspects to Orthodox values and lifestyle.
My religious doubts, which had incubated from early adolescence, at times surfacing but more often repressed, finally erupted with full force one day when I was around 23 years old. I don’t remember the exact day, but the experience was profound. I was standing on a street corner in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem and I had a sudden Eureka-like insight. In a flash, the traditional viewpoint and all of the apologetic defenses of it that I had constructed over the years appeared untenable and indefensible on rational grounds. The alternatives, existentially bleak as they appeared to be (and maybe are), were so much more convincing.
The experience was emotionally wrenching, because it removed the meaning structure of my life. The nineteenth-century French philosopher Jouffroy describes the emotional impact of his loss of faith in Catholicism at a particular moment, which reminds me of my feelings:
“This moment was a frightful one; and when toward morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, sombre and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.” (Jouffroy quoted by James, 1902, 183).
My eureka moment also engendered the very strange experience of a shattering of my self-definition and sense of self. I had always known myself (and had been known) as the sincerely religious yeshiva bochur. But who was I now? Shlomo the apikoros (heretic)? I hardly knew such a Shlomo. Was he me? Was I him? How should I now behave—the way I was used to behaving, in other words, ritually observant, praying, wearing the yeshiveshe garb (e.g., a suit and black hat)?
How do I relate to my family, to my dearest friends, to the people of the yeshiveshe world to whose homes I was invited for Shabbat, who assumed that I was of shlomey emuney yisrael(the community of the faithful)—one of ‘‘theirs’’? These were kind, warm people. Do I tell them who I now am and what I really believe? Do I act upon my conviction that whether or not there is a God, he did not reveal this Torah and that hence the entire halakhic structure that is built upon that premise no longer has any authority for me (and from my new perspective, for them either)?
My experience of loss of faith was similar, too, to that described by Alan Mintz in his book Banished from Their Father’s Table (Indiana University Press, 1989), referring to the nineteenth- century yeshiva students who lost their faith in the traditional religion in which they had been raised:
“It was not so much that the world of faith had been purposefully rejected but that at a certain point its plausibility had simply collapsed. The world that had once been thick with symbols and texts, sacred times and covenanted obligations, providential signs and redemptive promises was, suddenly, not there. What had been lost, moreover, even if it was no longer tenable, was also no longer replaceable… This intellectual and metaphysical negation was deepened by the loneliness that resulted from the break with family and community” (pg. 4).
In retrospect, my personal experiences seem almost trivial. The ‘‘loss of faith’’ experience of the yeshiva bochur had been almost a rite of passage for thousands in Europe and later in the United States. There was nothing novel in my doubts or in my experiences. However, just as sophomores are not aware that their “profound” insights and experiences are often reinventions of the wheel, I was unaware of the pervasiveness in Jewish society of my grappling with Orthodoxy and rejecting of its tenets.
I had not been too familiar with the literature of the nineteenth-century Jewish Haskalah (Enlightenment) or of modern Jewish philosophy, which are replete with discussions of the theme of grappling with and eventual rejection of Orthodox Judaism. But even if in historical perspective the loss of faith of religious adolescents or young adults is a common phenomenon, to me my experiences were far from trivial.
During the period of my doubts, and after my eureka experience, I feared the emotional and social consequences of rejecting the faith and tradition into which I had invested so much of my emotional and intellectual energies. I was afraid of hurting my family and of their reactions if I were to declare my skepticism, let alone act upon it.
“Coming out” wasn’t immediate, and from an external, behavioral perspective has been far from total. I didn’t reveal my changed self to my family for a while, and when I did it was with some sensitivity. It deeply hurt some family members and bothered others. It affected the quality of our relationships, creating emotional distance and tensions. Some of these might have been based upon real changes in how they related to me and how I related to them; others were probably based upon my projections of what I imagined they thought and felt about me, which might not have always been accurate.
My Current Religious Stance
So where am I now? I do not believe in the classical Orthodox view of Pentateuchal authorship and origin, that God dictated the Torah to Moses at Sinai or in the wilderness. I find the view of post-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, as the final product of a redaction of multiple sources authored over many centuries, to be much more plausible. I also do not believe in the historicity of most of the Pentateuchal narratives, and certainly not in the accounts of miracles or the mythic descriptions of creation and primordial times.
Whether or not there is a God cannot be proven, so I am an agnostic; science doesn’t need God to explain how things work. I see no evidence of a moral order in the universe, or of any divine theodicy of ultimate justice. I find Ecclesiastes’ view plausible—at death we return to dust and nothing of our essence lives on after us (although our children and the long-term effects of what we have done in our lives, do).
Despite my continued participation in traditional Jewish rituals, I am unsure of whether I can consider myself to be religious or spiritual. Can skepticism, agnosticism, or even atheism be compatible with spirituality? I often yearn for the spiritual and religious experiences that I had in my youth. Shirey neshama (soul songs and songs of yearning) evoke deep religious emotions in me. I find the late medieval poem Yedid Nefesh deeply moving:
“Beloved of the soul . . . draw your servant to Your will… My soul pines for your love. Please, O God, heal her now by showing her the pleasantness of Your radiance. Then she will be strengthened and healed, and gladness will be hers… It is so very long that I have yearned intensely, speedily to see the splendor of Your strength…” (Yedid Nefesh, ArtScroll trans.).
Also the biblical Psalm 42:
“Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God, my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God!… Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within me?… Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, My ever-present help, my God.” (Ke’Ayal Ta’arog Al Afikey Mayim JPS trans.)
An Agnostic Member of the Orthodox Community
My relationship to Orthodoxy is mixed. Without a doubt, certain core values and teachings of Orthodox Judaism have deeply shaped my own moral and ethical values, even as I find other teachings and values in Orthodoxy to be morally problematic. I do not perceive myself as having rebelled against Orthodox belief and practice because they were emotionally repelling or overly burdensome; practice was not the difficult part of being Orthodox for me. Beliefs were. At the same time, I admit that once I no longer accepted the doctrinal foundation of Orthodoxy, rebellion in behavior and emotional attitude became more possible and actual, though still not easy.
Notwithstanding my “rebellion,” I prefer to be a member of, and most frequently attend services and pray in, an Orthodox synagogue. I am observant of a substantial amount of halakha, such as some of the laws of kashrut, Shabbat and the shalosh regalim, but not because I believe that God commanded these laws, or for any other theological reason, but because I find many halakhot and minhagim to be emotionally satisfying and rational. My observance also connects me with a community of likeminded individuals in my synagogue who think and feel about Judaism as I do. Another factor is guilt and shame. My home and yeshiva education had a powerful impact on me, such that I often feel guilty when I violate some halakhot, and shame when others know about it.
Frankly, I am ambivalent toward traditional Judaism as a way of life. Some might say that I lack the courage to follow my beliefs (or lack of beliefs) to their logical conclusion. However, as stated above, there can be many reasons why a person maintains the traditions, lifestyle, and values of the religion and culture into which he or she was socialized, even though he or she no longer accepts the religious tradition’s own claims for its authority.
Notwithstanding the loss of the faith of my youth, my existential and intellectual preoccupations in my post-Orthodox state have always related to the religious, spiritual and ethical teachings of Judaism, to the Jewish people, and to the State of Israel. Throughout my adult years, I have tried to retain a strong Jewish identity and to understand as objectively as possible the historical development of Judaism. I have attempted to convey to my students something of my love of Jewish wisdom, tradition, and experience while not denying my intellectual and emotional ambivalence toward many of its teachings, values, and norms that I find either irrational or immoral. I have also tried to selectively extract from Jewish religious culture those elements and values I consider worth perpetuating among Jews and universally.
My involvement in Jewish study, teaching, and writing in an academic setting serves my dual interests. First and foremost, it allows me to express my need to maintain a deep-rooted connection to Judaism and the Jewish people and hold on to the pervasive sense of Jewish identity and identification that was so strongly inculcated in me in my childhood and early adulthood. At the same time, it allows me to be open to the ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be human and to be Jewish. This expansion of knowledge and self-understanding derives from ongoing advances in the humanities, the social sciences, the life sciences, and cosmology.
My openness has brought me to look at Judaism critically, to be attentive to the intellectual and moral challenges posed to it by contemporary thought and science. This commitment to Jewish culture and preservation of Jewish identity, while being open to modern thought and being wary of excessive ethnocentrism, can generate intellectual and emotional tension and can be accompanied by a certain sadness. This is so because the core and grounding of my Jewish identity from earliest childhood was, as I have said, Orthodox belief, values, emotions, behavior, and community. All of these have weakened as a consequence of my skepticism, and their replacements have not been as intense, vigorous, joyous, and existentially meaningful as was Orthodoxy.
“Ex-Orthodox” – A Difficult Mental Category
Individuals who were socialized in an Orthodox community and ideology and who leave the ideological and/or behavioral fold often continue to view, or at least experience, themselves, via the perspectives and categories of the Orthodoxy that they left. They may feel themselves to be rebels, heretics, apostates, and traitors—negative terms—even though at the cognitive level they consider their present views to be truer than the Orthodox doctrines that they left. It is hard to break out of a mold even after one has broken away from the fold.
One of my students was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish environment. She eventually adopted the views of secular humanistic Judaism and now makes it a point to define herself by what she believes in and by the values she affirms, rather than through the lens of the community from which she came. She takes offense when someone refers to her as a “nonbeliever,” maintaining, quite rightly, that she is a passionate believer. It is just that she believes in different things than the members of the community which she left believe in.
I still have some difficulty doing what my student is able to do. I often experience and define myself as a rebel or heretic vis-a-vis Orthodox Judaism, which entails a certain emotional defensiveness, even though I consider my views to be more plausible and reasonable than those of Orthodoxy. Perhaps this is because I continue to participate in the world of Orthodoxy and, hence, am regularly reminded of my deviations from its beliefs and commitments.
The Challenge of Being a Role Model
When it comes to certain students, I face a moral dilemma. I teach at Hebrew College, a non-denominational rabbinical school that caters to all forms of Jews. Because of my ortho-praxis, people often assume that I am ortho-dox and thus, on occasion, I find that students who are in the process of becoming closer to Orthodox tradition seek me out as a resource, if not a model. I am uncomfortable with this role because I know who I really am, or at least I think that I do, whereas these students, I imagine, perceive me as something other than what I really am.
I want to encourage them to draw closer to Jewish tradition and to Jewish learning, but not necessarily in the way in which Orthodoxy approaches it. I let the students know quite early in the relationship what my views are and that I think there are many avenues to God and to Judaism. I think that often this opens up for them directions that will be important as they explore their evolving relationship to Judaism and to their Jewishness.
The Positive Side of Being a Practicing Ex-Orthodox Jewish Studies Teacher
My release from the constraints of religious and theological doctrines has given me an exhilarating freedom to explore and pursue ideas that are exciting, at times unconventional or controversial, and occasionally perhaps radical in their implications.
My existential biography spills over into my academic life and is expressed in one way or another in what and how I teach, research, and write. My relationship to the Jewish texts that I teach is often ambivalent. I am drawn to them because they address significant issues of meaning, value, purpose, identity, and spiritual striving, though not always in a way I find intellectually or ethically satisfying.
When I study and teach a biblical, rabbinic, or medieval text, I often find that the most pedagogically effective way to engage the students’ interest and to be naturally enthusiastic in my teaching is to enter into the conceptual and emotional world of the text. In a certain sense, I suspend for a while whatever intellectual disbelief or emotional disaffection I would have were I to be examining and teaching the text from a critical and dispassionate perspective. Teaching becomes like theater in which I, and perhaps at times my students as well, are transported back in time and place. This is very much like the experience of studying Talmud or midrash in a yeshiva.
Admittedly, I have very positive emotional and cognitive associations with my yeshiva experiences, and teaching Talmud often triggers those feelings in me, and they are easily picked up by my students. Nevertheless, I know that my attitude toward these texts is no longer what it was when I was in yeshiva. Their moral and religious claims are often untenable, and the assumption that they have a priori authority over me as a Jew is one that I do not share, just as I do not believe that they are divinely revealed or inspired.
It is my responsibility and my desire as a teacher to make my students aware of this nontraditional perspective on the texts and the tradition. The challenge I face is how to engender some of that emotional involvement in, and at times passion for, tradition while at the same time maintaining the critical distance and objective stance that truth and intellectual honesty require.
The Struggle with Unreasonable Beliefs in the Age of TheTorah.com
I have been asked if my struggle with Orthodoxy would have been different if Project TABS and its website, TheTorah.com, had existed at the time, and if I had had access to a network of Orthodox Jews with reasonable beliefs?
I do think my struggle would have been less painful. Nevertheless, since my rejection of traditional beliefs was based not only on the findings of modern biblical scholarship but on philosophy, psychology, ethics, and biology, I don’t think TheTorah.com and a network of Orthodox Jews with reasonable beliefs would have sufficed to keep me back from heresy.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 9, 2014
February 19, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Solomon Schimmel is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College. He received his Ph.D in Psychology from Wayne State University. Schimmel is the author of The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth; Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness; and The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology.
Essays on Related Topics: