Rabbis in Spiritual Crisis*


Belief in God is an intuitive belief given our neurobiological makeup. Intuitive reasoning tends to change over a lifetime to the degree that one’s frames of reference change over time.  It therefore stands to reason that belief in God may also change over time.  Indeed, a number of studies found this to be the case.

For a teacher, computer programmer, psychologist this may be called a spiritual quest.  In the event that this quest leads to questioning one’s earlier beliefs, it may be a powerful experience, it may shake spiritual foundations, but it does not follow that one’s job may be at risk.

But what if one’s chosen profession is rabbi?  There is no reason to think that rabbis’ intuition, even religious intuition, would not develop or evolve.  As such, we would expect to find that over the years of their careers, the intuition that led one into a life of religious service might change.  Indeed ongoing projects have shown that non-Jewish clergy do experience this type of change.  It seems that being “ordained” does not inoculate one against questioning belief in God.  It stands to reason, that just as there are non-Jewish clergy who have changed their views of God and now find themselves out of sync with their congregants, there are rabbis who would fit this category as well. My initial findings titled “Rabbis in Spiritual Crisis”, were presented at the Second Annual International Conference on Judaism and Evolution, sponsored by the Binat Yitzrit Foundation, which took place at the Schechter Institute in July 2013.

Below are the stories of three rabbis. Their stories represent a compilation of some of the interviews I have conducted to date. The names have been changed and details combined to preserve confidentiality while maintaining themes that arose in the different stories.

Baruch*
Baruch is in his middle 50’s and resides in the north of Israel.  He was born in the center of the country, was educated in the United States, where he received rabbinical ordination and a PhD in Jewish Philosophy. He returned to Israel in the late 1980’s. He lectures in an academic college that trains teachers for the religious school system in Israel.  Though his position is in the area of philosophy and science, he was hired with the assumption that he is religiously observant.  Approximately seven to ten years ago, Baruch began to read books and articles by philosophers of science including those writers who identify themselves as the “New Atheists”.  He found their case much more convincing than he had previously.

Baruch has seven children ranging in age from 10 to 23.  His wife grew up in “modern religious” settings in North America, has always been religious  and maintains her belief in a supernatural creator.  The couple has educated their children in the religious public school system.

Baruch has always felt a deep emotional tie to his synagogue community.  Many are themselves rabbis.  Others are also versed in philosophy, education and the like.  Baruch finds these conversations much more compelling than those he has with most of his colleagues at the college.

At some point, due to a disagreement with the municipality, funding for the synagogue was significantly curtailed.  As a result, the community that Baruch loved split.  This coincided with Baruch’s exploration of evolutionary philosophy.  He assumes that his attachment to the community that disintegrated over seeming trivial differences fueled his spiritual crisis.  “If I could not believe in community, what was the point of believing in god?”, he said.

Eli
Eli identifies himself as a member of the nationalistic ultra-orthodox sector of Israeli society.  He lives in a small settlement just inside the “green-line” in the Jordan valley.  His story is somewhat different than the others’.  He still believes in God, though not the classic god often associated with ultra-orthodox beliefs.  He does not believe that god created the world some 6,000 years ago.  He accepts current scientific assessments of the age of the universe, yet still feels a presence in his life. He is well known in his circles for giving inspirational talks.

However, Eli’s struggle is by and large the same, as he does not believe that the god he does choose to believe in cares whether he prays (Eli does not) observes dietary laws (he generally does) or rests on the Sabbath (only when at home).  Where does his struggle lie? At the very forefront of his society’s values.  His reference group cares very much about these external practices – perhaps more than the internal belief set. Indeed, if it became known that he did not observe these practices he and his family would be shunned from their town, he would loose his livelihood; his children would have trouble marrying.  A lot is at stake so Eli maintains a façade of religious practice, though he experiences a great deal of internal conflict

He has shared some of his doubts with his wife.  “She was shocked”, although she had suspected that something was amiss for some time before he told her.  It was clear that when he “returned from synagogue” in the morning that the external signs of the phylacteries were not visible.  Eli still places them in a place so that his children will assume that he has been to prayer services and back.  He believes that there is a value to living in the religious sectors of Israeli society.  Additionally, he has no friends or support systems anywhere else – his children even less.

Simcha
Simcha was ordained in Israel in an ultra-orthodox setting, though he “never felt quite at home” in that world.  He was dismayed by the shunning of modernity.  His family was not permitted to own a television or computer.  However, his family did keep a laptop that they hid when guests came.  In a sense Simcha was used to keeping things in the closet.

After ordination Simcha took a position at a Jewish community Day School in Europe.  There he was slowly exposed to European atheism. He saw happy, loving people who were godless.  In his upbringing this was not possible.  “The godless were sinners,” worse than those who did not practice.

Being intellectually curious he began to read whatever he could find trying to understand how happiness could be possible without a god.  He found books by the new atheists intriguing and eventually convincing.  Like Baruch, he had trouble reconciling the evolutionary account of the world with his fundamentalist upbringing.  He had been taught that fossils were placed in the world by god to appear millions of years old but this was a test of faith.  However, as he read about carbon dating and other scientific evidence of human and animal evolution, he became more and more convinced by the science than by his up till then blind faith.

This process took place over the course of a decade.  During that time he and his wife, whom he wedded during his rabbinic studies continued to have children.  He has shared some of his transition with his wife, who essentially swore him to secrecy. Externally they still look orthodox. Internally, he is eternally conflicted.

A teacher in the elementary school system, his conflict does not exist when teaching Jewish history, Jewish law (Mishna) and even bible studies, “What does atheism have to do with Jewish people hood, Jewish history or the state of Israel?”  Like the others, Simcha still feels a deep connection to all three.

When does the conflict arise? When teaching Jewish prayer which forces him to maintain the façade of belief.  The job description requires him to pray with his students.  He understands the role of ritual in solidifying cultural identity, but he finds it hard to engage in the prayer ritual. “Prayer” he says, “takes out all the theological and philosophical cards and puts them right there on the table for the worshiper to look at.  You just cannot avoid it.”  He still teaches prayer, but is comforted by the knowledge that he doesn’t need to count towards the quorum of 10 required for adults, because he feels that he so far afield that it would be too deceitful to allow himself to be counted.

Simcha’s summary statement during our interview was one of the most poignant.  It reflects many of the feelings and thoughts expressed by many of the interviewees: “Falling out of belief happens slowly.  You’re not always aware of the process.  It can happen over a long period.  Kind of like falling out of love.”

In general I can say that all of the 11 rabbis I have interviewed maintain a connection to the Jewish people.  They have a strong sense of community and take issue with Maimonides’ principles of faith, especially the one that requires a Jew to believe in god; a principle that broke with rabbinic tradition from the Talmudic period.

I am now in the final stages of summarizing my initial research on “Rabbis in Spiritual Crisis” which will be published as part of the proceedings of last summer’s conference on Judaism and Evolution. Although my findings to date are inconclusive, I do know that my research has hit a raw nerve in the rabbinic community.  A week does not go by without another rabbi making contact, asking me “where have you been all this time?” I intend to explore more fully these rabbis’ crises with the hope of reaching more substantive conclusions.

To read more on this subject, see the Jerusalem Post article that appeared recently.

* All names and identifying information has been changed in order to maintain the rabbis’ confidentiality. These details include name, but may also include country, geographic area with the country etc. Occasionally, details of the stories have been merged as have been statements so as to provide on additional level of discretion.


Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is Director of the Center for the Study of Bio-social Perspectives on Judaism at the Schechter Institute where he lectures and serves as academic advisor for the Family and Community Studies and Women and Jewish Studies M.A. tracks. He is a graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a practicing psychologist in Jerusalem. 

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