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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Keeping the Faith

A yeshiva elementary school classroom in Jerusalem.

A yeshiva elementary school classroom in Jerusalem.
Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel / Flash 90.

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I am wholly inadequate to deal with this subject. That said I cannot leave it untouched. There is a phenomenon taking place that is highly disturbing to a believer and a rationalist like myself. The phenomenon I refer to is that of an increasing number of Orthodox Jews that are questioning their faith. Emunah has never before been tested like it is now. At least in my lifetime.

It used to be a bigger problem in the more open world of Modern Orthodoxy. That is where Rabbi Eliyahu Fink suggests the majority of the problem lies. But with the advent of the internet, everyone is at risk.

Tablet Magzine has an article by Ari Margolies, an 18 year old that is going through this. He was raised in a religious home. He was someone that loved his Judaism as a child. But then after his Bar Mitzvah he started asking the difficult questions. Questions that are difficult to answer. Thus he has become a skeptic – joining the community of skeptics who have had the same questions.

These are not people who went OTD because of dysfunction in their lives. Nor are they particularly the ones whose educational needs are not met because they are not up to the fierce completion in Yeshivos, whether it is in the area of Limud HaTorah or in the area of academic studies. These are the bright kids. These are the good kids from good families. And in some cases these are adults who at some point in their lives ask hard questions that end up leading them into becoming skeptics.

I have dealt with this topic in the past. I have offered my own views as to why I have Emunah. But I fully admit that I do not have satisfactory answers to all the questions asked by these highly intelligent people. For example it is almost impossible to answer a question put to me many times by different people – and one that precipitated Ari’s descent into the world of skeptics. From the article:

One morning, I woke up and a thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I realized I was only an Orthodox Jew because it was what I had been taught since birth. I knew no other way. If I had been born into a Christian family, I would have been on the Jesus train. If I’d been born into a Muslim family, I would’ve jumped on the Allah bandwagon. If I had been raised in the splendor of the flying spaghetti monster, then I’d have spent my mornings praising his noodle appendages. I was an Orthodox Jew by chance, I realized, and the realization shook me to my core.

I honestly do not know how to answer a question like this. And yet I have complete faith in Judaism as it has been handed down to me by my forefathers. Am I lucky to be born a Jew in a religious home? Yes! You bet I am. But that does not answer the question of why I get to be so lucky.

One of the things I deal with here (which my last post touched upon) is the fantastic stories of faith that strains credulity. As described by Ari:

I would hear stories of people who had their lives saved by their tefillin. One guy was praying while driving and got into a car accident; the only thing that stopped his head from smashing through the windshield was his headpiece. Another devout man, about to board a plane, realized he left his tefillin at home and missed the flight while retrieving them, and—you guessed it—the plane crashed. It all sounded like a bit much.

These kinds of stories tend to bring out the skeptic in me as well. Not that they are impossible to believe. But that they are so frequently used to prove that a miracle occurred because of an act based on one’s religious belief… Or taken a step further, because one participated in one of those Segula Tzedaka campaigns.

When people start questioning their faith, stories like this only accelerate the process.

I don’t have any answers to this increasing problem. But at the same time, there is absolutely nothing being done to address them in a communal way. At least not as it pertains to nipping it in the bud in one’s formal educational experience.

Yeshivos do not seem to be equipped to deal with this. Mechanchim tend to avoid these questions like the plague. For example a typical response by a teacher or Rebbe is to push the student away by telling them that such questions are Assur. You might as well just tell them there is no God! But even telling them you don’t know the answer is not really good enough.What ought to be happening in Chinuch these days is for teachers to face this challenge head on. They ought to be trained and fully prepared to deal with these issues. Instead of focusing the entire energy of Yeshivos on Gemarah or on academics – there ought to be Shiurim on Machshava… or Jewish philosophy.

When I was in Telshe, I never heard of the Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam’s great philosophical work. But when I transferred to HTC, I encountered Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. Once I was in the Beis HaMedrash he opened up the world of Machshava for me. HTC offered many courses in Jewish philosophy then. (I don’t think they do now. Which is very sad – but off topic.)But waiting to offer these course post high school is waiting to long. These courses ought to be part of every Yeshiva high school and Beis Yaakov curriculum – starting in 9th grade. In our era of instant information, it is more important than ever to try and provide answers to questions raised by accessing websites that generate the kind of skepticism Ari now feels. Not everyone becomes a skeptic. But enough do to make it a major concern for Jewish education.

These courses are not necessarily fool-proof. But they will help. The one thing we cannot afford to do is ignore the problem and hope it doesn’t happen to us or our children.Nor is trying to shelter our children from the internet really going to help. The web is too easy to access these days.

Bans clearly do not work. Those who issue them are completely blind to reality. In this day and age of handheld devices that have internet access – if someone wants to surf the net they will find a way – and will very likely get away with it. And in some cases they will become skeptical about the very essence of the beliefs they have been taught.

There has to be a change in the educational paradigm that exists in both Charedi and Modern Orthodox Yeshivos. We no longer have the luxury to ignore it. Continuing to do so will only make matters worse.

One person who agrees with me is Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer. He is very aware of the problem and has been receiving and trying to answer increasing numbers of questions about faith. To that end he has started to deal with it in his own time-limited way.

Rabbi Bechhofer is the right man for the job. He is a Baal Machsahva and very knowledgeable in dealing with these matters. To that end he has started posting on this issue on his blog. He has also spoken extensively on these subjects and has recorded many of those lectures. They are available to the public. I would urge anyone with difficult questions to seek out those lectures and listen to them.

As for Ari, all is not lost. Here is how he puts it:

[T]his might not be the end of the story. I come from a family of searchers. My parents went through various levels of religious commitment and thought before they settled on Orthodoxy. My three older brothers all went through similar ordeals, and they all eventually returned to the path. The only thing I can do is keep on open mind.

So, even though I’m not using my tefillin much these days, I’m keeping them on the shelf in their army-approved carrying case, because I might not be done with them quite yet.

I sure hope he finds his way back to Judaism. We need people like Ari. People who think!

Visit the Emes Ve-Emunah Blog.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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4 Responses to “Keeping the Faith”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don't understand. You had all those Machshova classes and still you cannot answer these questions. So why will having machshova classes in every school help answering them?

    I am sure if any rebbe or mechanich had answers they would say them. Perhaps there are no answers.

  2. Gil Gilman says:

    Because I am a skeptic, I believe. My skepticism includes everything inside as well as outside of religious questioning. Many who claim to be skeptics are only plagued with doubt. A true skeptic examines everything with the same rigorous standard and makes a rational decision based on fact, logic and rationality. It is easy to see flaws in everything, for some this only includes the ground upon which they stand, but they are not careful to look where their tread will fall next. I would encourage this young man, if he is indeed of an analytic bent, and it appears he is, to apply his skepticism to all the alternatives as well. The question why is the essence of machshova as long as it is not mere reaction, but rather an arriving at a shared self-definition.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Two thoughts. First, it seems that the logical flaw in Ari's epiphany is revealed when he writes, "I was an Orthodox Jew by chance." He thinks it is by accident that one is born to the parents one has. Can this not be challenged by the tenets of Judaism? (I really don't know, as I have not had the benefit of a religious education.) Secondly, my advice is to give courses in Propaganda Analysis. The first organized attempt to defeat propaganda was the Institute of Propaganda Analysis which was formed in 1933 in reaction to the Nazis – and although the organization is defunct, its principles are still used to teach people how to recognize propaganda and how to defend oneself against it. All Jews, regardless of religious orientation, are vulnerable to the insidious methodology of propaganda. And on the web, propaganda is ubiquitous.

    In my opinion, one of the most striking features of propaganda – and one of the main reasons that it is so rarely refuted – is what I would term 'compression'. Lies and emotionally manipulative ploys are densely packed into every paragraph of propaganda, written or spoken. Because of this, it is a very tedious job to disentangle, expose and disprove it. But it is great training! And it's especially suitable for the young, who have the enthusiasm and stamina to treat such a task as a game.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To clarify my first point, I wonder if it would be helpful to point out to Ari that his skepticism is based on an irrational assumption. One day, he chose to take as his axiomatic starting point that he was born into Judaism by chance. But this is unprovable, and thereby a matter of faith. So, in fact, he did not become a skeptic. He traded one faith for another.

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