Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Atheist Posek

When I first started this blog I became aware of a fellow that was outwardly observant but inwardly an avowed atheist with a pseudonym of Mis-nagid. I found that both fascinating and terrifying. Fascinating that there are atheists who are outwardly very observant and inwardly non believers. Frightening in that the fellow next to me in Shul on Shabbos davening with a talis over his head was in fact faking it – living a lie!

In a mistaken attempt to ‘show him up’ I wrote a post challenging him to prove there was no God as that is what I understood atheism to be. Mis-Nagid is a very bright fellow and basically laughed me ‘out of the room’.

He explained the difference between a strong atheist who is absolutely certain that there is no God and a weak atheist who believes there is no God because of the preponderance of evidence pointing in that direction. He is a weak atheist. If I recall correctly he admitted that if someone could prove God’s existence he would of course believe it. He just increasingly believes that it is not possible to prove it. And that evidence is going the other way.

Mis-nagid is not alone. The more I read about it, the more I realize that there is large community of ‘observant’ atheists. The term they have apparently chosen for themselves is ‘Orthoprax’. This means they ‘practice’ Judaism but do it for social or other reasons; not religious ones.

In one rather shocking instance a modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi who has retained anonymity for obvious reasons has announced that he too is an atheist. His shul does not know and he leads an outwardly religious lifestyle. He is good at his job and his unsuspecting Shul loves him. Imagine that! A rabbi preaching to his congregation about the keeping Shabbos while secretly believing it was all nonsense!

This phenomenon is not exclusive to modern Orthodox Jews. There have been articles about Charedi Avreichim who sit and learn who too have lost faith. That was even more surprising to me. But nothing prepared me for what I read in an Ami Magazine article. There is a Charedi Posek who is an atheist! Here are the opening lines of the article:

Aharon Gutberg’s apartment is simple—the typical apartment of a kollel family, with worn carpet leading up to it from the first floor and a Spartan selection of furniture. The breakfront in the dining room features the glint of a few silver items, but most of what lines the Gutbergs’ shelves is seforim, crammed into bookcases around the main rooms of the apartment. The general air of the house is one of self-control and limited spending. The family’s funds are invested in the intangible but substantial resource of Torah learning rather than in the passing things of this world. Even though Aharon has a job as a posek in his community, it is obvious that the money he brings in from his job has not enriched his family.

Normally, spiritual satisfaction and the light that a Torah-based lifestyle brings more than makes up for any financial deprivation in the life of a kollel family. The husband finds his life’s calling in the bais midrash; his wife has satisfaction in knowing that she is helping her husband learn and making her home a place of Torah, where she can raise her children to be upstanding and devout Jews.

Sadly, the Gutbergs’ can’t have that spiritual satisfaction because Aharon is a fraud. While he outwardly pretends to be a G-d fearing, observant individual, he is nothing of the kind. He is an Apikorus, plain and simple.

Shocking! And there are a lot more like him.

The article goes on to describe how this Posek got this way, which interestingly enough had nothing to do with the internet (He would never countenance it in his home and does not access it.) He just started asking questions and looking for answers in books. And like others before him, he could not find any that had any basis in his religious beliefs.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin takes issue with the magazine’s overly harsh and rejecting tone in dealing with these people. He may be right about that. But there is no doubt in my mind that belief in God is so fundamental to Judaism that it is meaningless without it. And the same holds true for God’s word – the Torah. If one does not believe in the legitimacy of the Torah, their Judaism is just as meaningless no matter how stringently they observe Halacha!

How we view them is an entirely different matter. Is one a kofer – a heretic because he has not found answers to questions and looses faith? If he at least allows for the fact that there might be answers so as to re-establish his faith - I think the answer to that might be no. But I admit that I am not an expert in issues of kefira.

Despite this posek’s personal non internet related journey away from his faith - the article goes on to blame the internet for the near explosion of religiously raised Jews who have lost their faith in either God, or Judaism, or both. I think they are right about that. The internet has accelerated the process. But it has not created it.

Doubt has always been a part of human existence. If we are intellectually honest and have ever thought about some of the issues raised by science and other disciplines those questions have at least entered our minds. Most of us reject them immediately as our faith is stronger than our doubts.

I am not going to get in to a long discourse of why that is the case. That is not my issue here. But there are a large number of people who cannot so easily dismiss those questions. They do not find answers to them and their doubts continue eating away at their faith. And yet as members of a warm and nurturing religious environment, with believing parents, spouses, and friends many if not most choose to stay outwardly religious and not disrupt their lives and those of their families.

How many are there? Who knows! But it is kind of scary to think about the very real if unlikely possibly that the rav you ask your shailos to is an atheist! And so too the rebbe in yeshiva that teaches your son Torah. Or the fellow sitting next to you in shul.

If the internet is to blame for at least accelerating the OTD process is that enough justification to banish it from our homes? No. It is too valuable a resource and it won’t work anyway. One might as well try and banish air. The medium is there and most of us use it. Increasingly so - even in the most Charedi of homes. Accessibility is so easy that it doesn’t even matter if one doesn’t have it in their home. If a child wants to use the internet, it’s as easy to access as a telephone. Easier even!

This - as Ami Magazine points out - is a very different breed of OTD. These people do not necessarily have emotional issues that caused them to be disillusioned with Judaism. Although in many cases they too were led to internet sites that facilitated their disbelief.

These are people who went OTD for intellectual reasons. Those who do outreach to OTD Jews will tell you, it is almost impossible to bring this type of OTD individual back.

There is another problem: the ‘multiplier effect’. Even though these people are not ‘missionaries’ about their atheism, when asked they are very effective at arguing their case – pointing to various internet sites that support their views.

What to do…

The answer is not in bans or in treating these people like they were lepers. They are not. They are simply people with unanswered questions that have caused them to go astray. I do not see them as hopeless heretics. Just ‘works in progress’ to be treated like the human beings they are.

I believe the answer lies in education. There is precious little machshava – Jewish thought taught in most religious schools. Belief in God and the truth of the Torah is currently just assumed. There is no effort to re-enforce those beliefs. The orientation is on the ‘how’ - not the ‘why’. That used to be okay before the information explosion of our day. But that is no longer enough.

More people than ever are being exposed to ideas that were heretofore found mostly only in the dusty areas of university libraries or in courses dealing directly or indirectly with these issues. Certainly no adolescent in a typical yeshiva high school would have had ready access to that kind of material and they wouldn’t be seeking it if they did. But today, it is all over the place in media of all kinds – especially the internet. Issues dealing with faith can no longer be ignored by any Orthodox segment in Jewry. It must instead be dealt with head on. If we don’t it is at our own peril.