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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It’s the Struggle that Will Get You There

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the June 21st, 2010

I recently read Rabbi Sherlow’s book on Rav Kook “Ve’Ayrastich Li Le’Olam” .  One of the chapters deals with Rav Kook’s theory of characteristics.  We tend to think of certain characteristics as either good or bad. Our mothers all taught us that if we are shy we need to “break out of our shells” or if we are outspoken we need to “tone it down.”  But according to Rav Kook characteristics themselves are neither bad nor good, they are neutral.  A person is born with certain neutral personality traits and he can decide how he wants to utilize them.  Rav Kook  uses Jesus as an example.  He argues that Jesus was a person with great spiritual qualities.  He could have used these innate characteristics to spread the Torah but instead he used these traits to break off from Judaism.

Rav Kook speaks of the root characteristic versus it’s manifestations;  one root characteristic could have many opposing manifestations.  This is how he explains a very interesting Gemara in Yoma 69b.   The Gemara tells the story of the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedola (the men of the Great Assembly) who fasted for three days and three nights until the yetzer (the drive) for idol worship was handed to them.  Something that appeared to be a pillar of fire escaped from the Kodesh Ha’kedoshim (Holy of Holies) and the prophet explained to them that this was the yetzer for idol worship.  But what was the root cause of idol worship doing in the Kodesh Ha’Kedoshim  – the holiest place in the Temple?

Rav Kook’s theory of  characteristics answers our question: the root cause of idol worship is the same root cause for worship of Hashem.  They both stem from the same character trait – spirituality.  When the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedola rid the world of the drive for idol worship they also rid the world of a certain innate drive to serve Hashem.  A certain sense of mystery and holiness disappeared.   People no longer sensed transcendence as they used to. And People no longer loved serving God as they once had.  It must have been a difficult decision for the Anshei Knesset Hagedola to make.  How do you measure the value of such a drive over the value of ridding the world of idol  worship?  And I can’t help but to wonder if they made the right decision.

The truth is I think the Anshei Knesset Hagdola erred in a fundamental way.  They thought they could find a clean easy route to Go.  They felt that if they could just take away what seems to be standing in the way…

And God let them do it. Perhaps  God was trying to teach them a lesson – there are no easy paths.  Things that are easy to reach are generally not worth  reaching.  It’s the struggle that allows us the insight.  It’s the struggle that gets us there.

And now as people residing in a universe without this innate drive we are given a difficult task.  We need to discover this drive on our own using our other faculties: intellect, intuition, emotion, moral sensibilities, drive for human perfection.  We need to utilize all of these faculties in the proper ratio to get to the place the ancients were able to reach with no effort at all.  Idol worship might be gone but we all still struggle to reach God  because in the end it is the struggle that will get us there.

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Do You Have to Believe in God to be a Jew?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the June 11th, 2010

The interview in the Biblical Archaelogy Review that I have spoken about in previous posts has proved itself to be rich in subject matter. William G. Dever was an evangelical preacher who lost his faith and eventually became a Reform Jew. His story is, as one would expect, fascinating. It was a statement that he read in a book by George Ernest Wright, a professor at Harvard, that ultimately led him to reject religion. Wright wrote “in biblical faith everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened.” Dever, an archaeologist began to work in Israel and started to doubt the historicity of the Bible. That marked the end of his faith. But his work in Israel did not mark his end to his religious life. Surrounded by Jews in Israel, Dever eventually converted to Reform Judaism because “you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew.” He explains “I think Judaism is about practices rather than a correct theology.” Later he clarifies that he is not an atheist, he is an agnostic. I think his estimation of Judaism leads one to an inevitable question: Do you have to believe in God to be a Jew or is Judaism exclusively about practice?

If you look in the Torah itself it seems clear that certain theological ideas are integral to Judaism. The notion of the existence of God is critical to the definition of a Jew. The very conception of Judaism is rooted in Abraham’s acceptance of God over the pagan gods of his time. The notion of God’s involvement in the world and revelation are also integral to the notion of a Jew. The Tanach is replete with stories in which God is involved with mankind and interacts with certain chosen individuals. And the importance of the concept of Divine Justice is apparent from even a brief glimpse of Tanach.

And yet Rabbinic Judaism does not make a list of dogma for Jews to embrace. In fact, The Rabbis of the Talmud seem to have agreed with Dever’s estimation of Judaism. It is essentially a religion of norms, of religious practices, as opposed to certain theological ideas. For Rabbinic Judaism you are considered a Jew if your mother is a Jew; Genetics speak louder than beliefs. So did beliefs play any role in Talmudic Judaism?

It is important to remember than in the time of the Talmud the notion of belief  was qualitatively different from the notion of belief  in medieval times.  If you remember Fowler’s distinction from our first post, belief in ancient times did not mean belief in certain propositions or lists of dogma, it meant a type of allegiance or trust.   A list of dogma would would not have suited the Rabbis concept of belief.  But despite their lack of specific list of ideologies we can see that the recognition of God was of primary importance to the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud from their ruling regarding the recitation of Kriat Shema. While generally speaking the mitzvot (commandments) do not require intent, when one says Shema he is required to focus on accepting God’s rulership (for lengthier discussions on the laws on kavana (intent) during kriat Shema see and )

It wasn’t until the medieval times that Karaism and Islam incited the medievals to define Jewish Dogma. But the ideology expressed in those medieval lists was never  alien to Judaism. I think Lawrence Schiffman sums it up nicely in his response to Dever in the article I mentioned above:

“But I think modern Judaism goes too far with the notion that you don’t have to believe anything to be Jewish. You don’t in the sense that you’re part of the community even if you don’t believe. But the question is, doesn’t Judaism really have in mind that a person will have certain types of faith commitments that are then acted out in certain ways?”

It is easy to lose sight amidst of all the technical Halakhic (legal) discourse that Jews should observe the commandments in order to mold themselves into the type of people who can become closer to God and their fellow man. The mitzvot are not ends in themselves. This is a very important point particularly for sufferers of faith crises. I have had letters from faith crisis sufferers asking me if they should keep doing mitzvot despite the fact that they are struggling to believe. This is based on a general misconception of the concept of mitzvot. We do mitzvot precisely to come to closer to God. Stopping their performance is antithetical to the faith crisis sufferer’s goals. Keep doing the mitzvot. Keep learning Torah. Keep praying. (Even if it seems meaningless.) These are the things that might ultimately bring you back. Always keep in mind that faith is a process.

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