Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Yanky, Moishe, and Solomon

Chasidic youth in Brooklyn (Aeon)
Once again the fascinating story of Chasidim going Off the Derech (OTD) has been published. This time it is in Aeon Magazine, a secular publication. It tells the story of three Chasidim that came into contact with scientific fact and/or biblical criticism that contradicted their long held beliefs about God and the Torah… and then became atheists. But unlike Shulem Deen a Skverer Chasid who at first hid is atheism and then eventually came ‘out of the closet’, left his family and his community, these Chasidim stayed put and fake it. They are what this article calls ‘undercover atheists.

It seems that every article about going Off the Derech is about Chasidim. But they are not the only ones that do so. My guess is that the story of someone whose appearance and lifestyle is so outwardly religious becoming an atheist is far more interesting than it would be if a Modern Orthodox Jew became an atheist. It’s kind of a man bites dog story, I suppose. My guess is that there are as many if not more MO Jews that become atheists. But I digress. Back to the 3 Chasidim of the story.

In the case of Solomon*, He has been hiding his atheism for 15 years.  Outwardly, he is the same person he always was- performing the same Mitzvos. He goes to Shul, puts on Talis and Teffilin and pretends to Daven. But in his mind, there is no God to Daven to because He does not exist. He is married, has children and raising them as religious Chasidic Jews.

The same thing is true for another Chasid named Yanky*. He had always had question as a child. And when he found what he believed to be answers which contradicted what he was taught, he lost his faith.

And then there is Moishe*. He is apparently a Talmud Chacham and has written Seforim. From Aeon:  
He has written books of exegesis that are studied in many yeshivas, uncovering the hidden secrets of the Torah. – books on Biblical exegesis that are studied in many Yeshivos.
Like Yanky and Solomon, he too is a closet atheist – living his life as an observant Chasid and raising his children that way.

Theirs is a sad story. Sad because I can’t imagine living a lie where your way of life does not match your beliefs and raising your children on that lie! It is the height of hypocrisy. And yet they do this despite the great difficulty. The sacrifice is worth it to them. That’s because they realize that the greater of two evils is breaking up the family. And while they did not say so in the article, doing what Shulem Deen did can make for e a very lonely existence.  They have no intention of leaving their community.

According to Aeon:
(H)undreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women whose encounters with evolution, science, new atheism and biblical criticism have led them to the conclusion that there is no God, and yet whose social, economic and familial connections to the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities prevent them from giving up the rituals of faith. 
This statistic used to surprise me. It no longer does. But there are questions about this phenomenon that beg for answers. How many stay ‘undercover’ and how many just leave altogether like Shulem did? Would it have helped if they were raised in a different type of Orthodox environment? One better equipped to deal with issues of faith that arise from encounters with modern science and modern scholarship? I think the answer to that is, yes. Had they been raised in an environment that was not so fundamentalist they might have reached different conclusions about God and the Torah. 

This is where Modern Orthodoxy comes in. It is this segment of Orthodoxy that is better prepared to deal with these issues. Subjects like evolutionary theory is taught as compatible with belief in God and the Torah.

Not that Modern Orthodoxy guarantees preventing going OTD. It doesn’t. But at the same time it is a lot easier for atheists and skeptics to be accepted in Modern Orthodoxy than it is in Chasidus. While Modern Orthodox Jews by definition believe in God and His Torah, they can better understand it when someone among them takes a different path. So that as long as they are observant outwardly (Orthoprax), they are accepted. Or at least tolerated.  While there are Halachic issues with respect to accepting them, they are beyond the scope of this post.

I am not saying that these closet atheists should leave Chasidus and join a Modern Orthodox Community. The education, lifestyles, and social experiences are so radically different, that joining it would be even more difficult than becoming entirely secular.  So while that is not a realistic option for a Chasid, there is no doubt in my mind that being Orthoprax is much easier for a Modern Orthodox Jew than it is for a Chasid.

As I have said many times in the past, the questions raised by modern science and modern scholarship does not automatically mean that God doesn’t exist and that the Torah is false. There are ways to reconcile Torah and science. And there are ways to deal with modern scholarship. Belief need not be explained by reason alone. There are other things aside from reason that lead to Truth. They can be experiential, intuitive, emotional, historical as well as rational. If one uses reason alone one can indeed go astray. It is the in the aggregate of all of these that one can find the truth.

In the meantime, I have to wonder, just how many Solomons, Yankys, and Moishes there are in the Chasidic or non Chasidic Charedi world? Is it really in the thousands as the article suggests? And if so, how does the Chasidic community propose to deal with it? Especially if they don’t know who they are? Wouldn’t the better option be to be to study those disciplines and learn how to answer the questions?  

While it is true that Halacha forbids the study of Kefira (heretical subjects) exceptions are made when Kefira becomes an existential  challenge. If enough Chasidim become atheists (are ‘thousands’ enough?) via contact with it, it is then permitted to study it in order to Da Ma L'Hasheiv -‘know how to answer’ the questions that increasingly arise in our era of instant information.  There is no better Eis La’asos (time to act) than now.

Warning: I will not tolerate any discussion or debate about belief. This is an Orthodox blog. Belief in God and His Torah is a given here. I have no desire to plant seeds of doubt into innocent minds that would no doubt occur if such a discussion ensued.

*as Aeon points out - all names have been changed to protect their identity.