Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Atheist Avreichim

There is a bit of a buzz on the internet about an article in Mishpacha Magazine by publisher Rabbi Moshe Grylak. It deals with what one might think is an unusual even aberrational situation about an Avreich who learns in a Kollel full time. This is not some dropout apparently. This is a serious fellow who actually spends his time learning with Hasmada Rabbah – great diligence. What is his problem? He does not believe in God.

I have written about this phenomenon many times and as recently as a couple of weeks ago. In most cases losing one’s belief in a Creator is the result of a troubled spirit that has fallen through the cracks. That is generally when he begins questioning God’s existence and finding that the answers he gets do not satisfy him. Occasionally one will find a very bright and curious student that will just begin asking these kinds of questions out his own curious nature. Unfortunately the results are often the same. No answers are forthcoming and instead a dismissal of the question itself as Apikursus. Thus they end up losing their faith.

But I don’t think I have ever heard of a high caliber Charedi Avreich having these kinds of issues. It seems from the article that this fellow had a normal Charedi upbringing. He did not fall through any cracks. He simply went through the system as did so many others like him and succeeded in reaching a high level of competence in his Torah learning.

How does something like this happen? How does an Avreich who is weaned on a life of Torah from day one and who chooses a life of learning Torah become an atheist?

Apparently he is not alone even in his own Kollel. He says that there are other Avreichim there that feel much the same way he does.

Rabbi Grylak points out that he is a victim of the very system that made him such a dedicated Avreich. He had questions... and they turned him away from belief in God. Why do the questions not get addressed as one matures through the system? I think the answer is pretty clear. Most mechanchim have no clue how to answer them. Rabbi Grylak suggests this himself:

I remember something a great talmid chacham told me some years ago. A group of teachers came to consult with this talmid chacham, who is also a prominent figure in chinuch. One of the issues they raised was what to do about students who voice doubts about emunah.

“How do you answer them?” the gadol inquired.

“We silence them, and tell them that such questions are not to be asked.”

“Why don’t you just answer their questions?”

“Are there any answers to those questions?”

Rabbi Grylak goes on to say that there are answers and that our Mechnchim ought to be able to give them. Silencing a questioner will almost certainly not solve his problem. The doubts will remain – not only unanswered but with a feeling that there aren't any answers.

Lest anyone think this Avreich is just some lying Apikores who want’ to make the Torah world look bad, Rabbi Grylak points out the following:

This young avreich, and others like him, are learning Torah as their “profession,”

and later he says:

It isn’t as if we were dealing with rebels. These are young people who desire life. They crave the truth, but the dread of being stigmatized muzzles them, and they cannot voice their anguish.
Yes, there is a major flaw here in an otherwise very successful system that has created more people learning Torah in our day then at any other time in Jewish history. But it has dropped the ball in matters of Machshava.

Rabbi Grylak points out:

As the great mashgiach Rav Wolbe, ztz”l, said, “There are no apikorsishe questions. There are apikorsishe answers.” But if someone receives no answer to his non-apikorsishe question, he is liable, over the years, to give himself an apikorsishe answer.

I agree. What are those answers that are not Apikursus?

I have in the past written about my own struggles with belief and why I have come to the conclusion that God exists. I realize that my answers will not satisfy the hard core skeptics that require incontrovertible proof. And although I am not going into a long discussion about it, I will mention just a couple things that for me are compelling.

The evidence of God’s existence is vast and if one thinks about it all - one cannot with any degree of honesty believe that there is no Creator. The probability that the entire physical universe with all of its majesty and complexity (especially that of the human being) came into being all by itself is so mathematically remote that it is an absurdity to believe that over the far more logical explanation of a spiritual Creator.

There is also the ability to think rational thought. Yes - there are chemical reactions in the brain that go on with every single thought. But does anyone seriously believe that a rational thought is only a series of chemical reactions and nothing else? That - to me - is absurd! Logic is not a physical phenomenon.

Like I said a hard core atheist will find a ways to refute any argument I make. But just like some atheists have never found satisfying answers to their questions, I have never heard a satisfying rejoinder to either of these points.

I only mention this because I am constantly challenged to show why I believe in God. I wanted to at least touch upon it. There are other arguments pointing to a Creator and while each may be challenged by itself - as I always say - in the aggregate they make a compelling argument for God’s existence.

I should add that in the end, there is something Christians call a ‘leap of faith’. In Judaism that is called Emunah Peshuta. We simply believe in God intuitatively. But it is not an intuition that requires a major jump to an absurd conclusion not supported by facts. It is an intuition that is based on a tremendous amount of evidence.

Will these answers satisfy this Avreich and his friends? I’m not sure. But it is a shame that he got this far without even a hint that there might be answers that possibly could have helped him because of the stigma that comes from just asking the question.