Reasonable Doubts Blog

The Atheist Rabbi: Has Judaism Lost its Soul?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the July 2nd, 2010

A certain blog post has understandably received much attention from the blogosphere and I think it brings up some very important issues about contemporary Judaism. Here is the post:

I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue. I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids). This is all pretty unremarkable. But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not. I don’t believe in any of it. I am an atheist. I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.

How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple. A rabbi is a job like any other. No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client. Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons. Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in. Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky. Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons. I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff. My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise – so what’s wrong if I don’t believe. My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance. I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied. So do my beliefs matter?

Like many other bloggers I believe this is probably a hoax. While I think anyone can go through a crisis of faith (been through a few myself), and many fall victim to the crisis and lose their faith completely, I have a hard time believing that this “rabbi” would risk exposing himself and losing his beloved job. But perhaps, as some of the more psychologically astute bloggers have suggested, he is actually feeling guilty about the whole thing and this is his way of dealing with the guilt.

The question of the existence of this rabbi is almost moot at this point, he has become real in the consciousness of those who read his blog and his reality has posed many questions about the nature of the Rabbinate and the essence of Judaism itself. Is the Rabbinate simply a job like plumbing as this man has suggested or is it more of a calling? And is Judaism essentially a religion of practice (Orthoprax)or ideology (Orthodox)? Has orthodox Judaism become orthoprax? Many of the previously mentioned bloggers have responded to the first question. Most agree that the Rabbinate is a calling not a job and somebody who does not experience this calling has no place in the rabbinate. But I think the second question is equally important – perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on strict conformity of practice and not enough on ideology. I am not suggesting that practice is unimportant in Judaism, but I am suggesting that it has been stressed to such an extreme that it has begun to choke out the ideology. People have begun to consider Judaism bereft of a philosophy – a religion where pretty much anything goes (as the “rabbi” is really suggesting). Clearly Judaism is based on certain ideological propositions, and without those propositions the whole system collapses. What is the point of keeping Shabbat if you deny God’s creation and the notion of a personal God (Yetziat Mitzraim)? In some respects contemporary Judaism has lost sight of this.

I think, especially for the purposes of this blog, it is also important to distinguish between a person who is going through a faith crisis and a person who happily declares himself an atheist. A faith crisis, as I have tried to explain in earlier posts, is part in parcel of the faith process. A gleeful atheist has abandoned the process entirely and has no desire to pick it up again. We would expect a rabbi to go through a crises of faith in his lifetime, but once he firmly abandons the process he abandons Judaism. It would be hard to argue that someone who has abandoned Judaism can be part of the rabbinate. To use this man’s ridiculous metaphor: could a plumber who abandoned plumbing keep working as a plumber? It’s nonsensical.

This man’s post has clearly struck a very raw nerve with people. Perhaps it is time to deal with some of the issues the post has brought up.

I’d love to hear what you think of this man’s post and some of these issues.

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