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Mrs. Brown’s Journey

Two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging, as seen by the Hubble Telescope, Oct. 20-27, 2009.

Two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging, as seen by the Hubble Telescope, Oct. 20-27, 2009.
Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I must admit to being a little shocked. After reading the Forward article by Judy Brown about her journey away from traditional belief – I really was taken aback.

Judy Brown is the award winning author of the book, Hush – a fictionalized story about the sex abuse of a childhood friend. A friend that experienced it in the Chasidic community in which she was raised. I heard Mrs. Brown speak passionately on this issue last winter here in Chicago. She was dressed quite Tzanua (modestly) according to Orthodox Jewish standards -and she wore a Shaitel. That is a wig. Which is how most married Orthodox women in the western world cover their hair.

I had assumed from this that although she was upset by the way her community treated sex abuse, that she was still very much a believer in the theology of Judaism. A recent article – where she described herself as still wanting to dress modestly even according to Chasidic standards despite the “pull” away from that by society – just corroborated my perception.

As it turns out, she apparently is not a believer. It is not that she abandoned her belief in God. But she seems to have abandoned her belief in the theology she was taught about the Torah… and perhaps has even crossed the path into the world of skeptics and Orthopraxy. As she admits:

“I discovered the agony of praying to God when I knew I was talking to myself.”

She now sees herself as an outsider among the people she grew up with.

I am not here to judge her. I am instead looking at the world in which she was raised. It seems obvious from her account that it is because of what she was taught – and the way she was taught it – that upon discovering the scientific way of looking at the world she appears to have lost her faith.

Interestingly, it was not the internet that lead her astray. It was the book Cosmos by famed astronomer Carl Sagan. I did not read the book. But I’m pretty sure it is based on the wonderfulPBS series of the same name hosted by Professor Sagan. I absolutely gobbled that series up. I actually recorded every episode and have watched some of them many times. I still have the entire collection in VHS.

It was an eye opener for me as well. One of the most educational and entertaining series I have ever seen to date, even though it was produced in the 1980s. Especially the episode on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. And yet I did not become a skeptic. Except for one brief remark by Professor Sagan where he argued against the existence of God in one of those episodes, what I saw was entirely compatible with Judaism.

But apparently Mrs. Brown had a different reaction. She had the same kind of reaction as people who are taught that every word in the first chapter in Genesis must be taken literally. That the world was created in 6 days and is less than 6000 years old. Even the most basic knowledge about the sun being a star – and stars being suns was a shock to her.

No matter how much she resisted believing what she read in that book, she eventually succumbed to the fact that there are billions and billions of stars (suns) in the universe and that many of them are millions of light years away, thus crashing her belief system. And now, prayer has become nothing more that talking to herself!

What a sad thing to read just before Rosh Hashanah.

In this era of instant information that can be had any time and any place and read in the palm of your hand, it is beyond foolish to try and ban it… or to even use filters so as to avoid reading the science upon which things like the age of the universe is based.

But it is even more foolish in my view to not teach the science in the first place. Ignorance is our worst enemy. Because the minute one finds a contradiction to the insistence that only the most literal interpretation of the Torah is acceptable, believers can and often will sadly go the way or Mrs. Brown.

Instead of hiding the facts of nature by ignoring the study of science, it ought to be fully taught in every school. There are Shivim Panim LaTorah. The idea of an ancient universe is not Kefira. Had Mrs. Brown been armed with that knowledge she may not have had her ‘epiphany’ about Judaism.

Had she been taught the theory of evolution properly, she would have realized that indeed it is quite compatible with the idea of God’s creation of the world. That He used the method of evolution as the mechanism for his creation. While there are elements of the theory of evolution that seem to contradict some of our beliefs, the overall outline of it is compatible with them.

But for Mrs. Brown (and probably for the vast majority of those whose secular education is so strongly limited) learning about evolution caused her to stop believing in some of the fundamentals of Judaism.

It seems however that instead of increasing the knowledge base of our people, religious leaders are going in the opposite direction. Virtually all Charedim in Israel have no education in science at all. Even in elementary school only basic math is taught. Beyond elementary school it’s Gemarah 24/7.

In the US that was not the case in the not too distant past. Virtually all Charedi high schools taught basic science. But it has increasingly become popular in these schools to either minimize or completely eliminate secular studies. The problem that this causes for Parnassa purposes is obvious and has been discussed here many times.

But what has not been discussed that much is the vulnerability this creates in these students. The slightest exposure to some basic scientific thinking can easily cause them to go completely OTD or become Orthopraxic closet skeptics!

The solution to preventing them from succumbing to this knowledge on the part of Charedi leaders is to completely ban all possible access to the “Kefira” of science. They condemn and want to ban the internet as that is the most readily available source of knowledge available. They even ban books that try and reconcile that science with the Torah – like those written by Rabbi Slifkin – in the strongest possible terms… fearing it will all lead people astray. But banning it all is about as possible as banning air.

Mrs. Brown decided to read a book on the subject after having some spirited discussions with a friend. The book she chose was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Had she been fully prepared for it by a proper science education, she may have had the same reaction to Cosmos that I did. But instead it led her to reject her religious teachings.

Even without the kind of basic science education that I had – had she read Rabbi Slifkin’s books, she might still be a believer today. But his books were banned. In her mind therefore, what difference was it which ‘forbidden fruit’ she partook of?

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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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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