A commentator recently asked me if I was going through a crisis of faith. My first thought upon seeing the question was to dismiss it out of hand. But having taken some time to reflect on the matter, I can't help but wonder if perhaps he is right. Perhaps I am going through a crisis of faith. If faith is a byproduct of ignorance, then I am certainly going through a crisis of faith.
We have all seen examples of Jews who failed, in a very public way, to live up to the Torah's standards of ethical behavior. We've seen examples of rabbis who steal. We've seen examples of rabbis who molest children and commit other sexual indiscretions. We've seen examples of rabbis who are corrupt and either follow the money or power when it comes to communal policy. We've seen rabbis make outrageous statements that defy logic and comprehension. We've seen rabbis who are far more concerned with minutiae such as skirt lengths, wigs, music and the like rather than seeing that people can get a Jewish education or making good communal decisions. We've seen rabbis who seem to be far more interested in dividing the Jewish community between their own "correct" enclave and the "Other" portions of Orthodox Judaism -- to say nothing of the vast majority of non-Orthodox Judaism -- than in bringing Jews together. We see rabbis who seem to want to advance their own personal agendas in a "my way or the highway" fashion in the areas of marriage, divorce, conversion, etc. rather than reach out and form a halachic consensus that is workable for everyone.
And we have whole communities that are willing to march in lockstep behind these rabbis, whether they are right or wrong, without giving even for a second considering the possibility that these rabbis just might be wrong. We have whole swaths of our community who have granted leading rabbis a de facto status of infallibility, whose words are not to be questioned or commented on. And we have seen how those very same "infallible" rabbis can be manipulated by people who have personal agendas by using partial truths or outright lies to form communal policy, disrupt the livlihood of people engaged in perfectly legitimate occupations and so on.
People like to say "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews." As with the popular expression that I mentioned earlier, there is a certain amount of truth in the saying. Jews, like the rest of humanity, are only human. Like all other human beings, we have our failings and there will be those of us who engage in misconduct that brings shame on the community. It's unfortunate that it happens, but as long as we're human, it will happen from time to time. And you can even expect that rabbis, too, from time to time, will misbehave as well. They are subject to the same basic human temptations that the hoi polloi are subject to. You would think that rabbis should be held to a higher standard than the common man, but not to a standard of perfection. But yet, we have seen in the last few years, rabbis engaging in bad behavior in incidents that are becoming far more numerous than any that I can remember in my lifetime. Perhaps all this went on all the time and I was merely ignorant before -- but now that I know, I cannot "unknow" it. This is not to say that there are not rabbis out there who are saintly human beings, who work tirelessly for the communal good and work on fixing K'lal Yisroel's problems rather than creating new ones. I'm certain that they're out there and I'd even venture that they are the majority -- but just as a single skunk in a patch of a thousand roses can overwhelm the plesant scent of the flowers with his stink, so too one bad rabbi can cause more damage than the good works of many good rabbis. And the stink of the skunks is getting harder and harder to tolerate.
If I could say that this crisis of faith that I'm having is limited in its scope to the behavior of some lay individuals or rabbis, I could perhaps find it much easier to resolve. But it runs far deeper than that -- it also runs into the areas of community policy, attitudes and theology.
Orthodox Judaism has been experiencing a "slide to the right" for a while now. Things that were perfectly acceptable in some circles thirty years ago are now deemed "beyond the pale." As an example, someone recently said the following to me:
An ehrlich yid would not agree to a shidduch where seperate [sic] seating was not a given.
Keep in mind that mixed-seated weddings were fairly common in the Orthodox community in the past generation or two. But according to this commentator, all those people are just not ehrlich (i.e. honest, virtuous)-- and neither are a lot of people today, it seems. No matter how honest you are in your dealings, no matter how meticulous your observance of the mitzvos, no matter how careful you are in dealing with the feelings of your fellow man, if you agree to a shidduch where there is mixed seating, you're just not ehrlich.
And the attitude goes far beyond simply mixed seating. It seems like it's almost every month that some new ban arises in the community -- whether it be concerts, fish, the Internet, media in general, books, clothing colors and styles and on and on. As a community, we are imposing ever stricter guidelines on people, both through official channels (i.e. community rabbis, schools, other institutions) and unofficial channels (if you don't conform in even the most minute way, your kids will have difficulty getting a shidduch). And while higher standards can be a good thing, it must be balanced by the ability of the community and it's people to be able to happily live within those standards. Chazal recognized this over a millennium ago with the idea that a decree, no matter how valid, warranted or needed, cannot be enacted if the community cannot (or will not) live under it and abide by it. Today, however, we seem to have remembered the need for communal decrees to address new situations that arise, but we've forgotten the part that any solution must be one that the community will accept and live by. Perhaps the reason for this is because these bans and decrees come from people with an agenda to push and by well-meaning rabbis who are given misleading and false information and are out of touch with the common people.
If I could say my crisis of faith goes even to the area of increasing standards, perhaps I might still be able to ride it out. But it goes even further than that -- it also goes to the attitudes that are prevelant in some parts of our community.
Frankly, I am appalled by some of the attitudes that are present in our community, but perhaps the most important underlying cause is the refusal of our community to move forward. We seem to be stuck in a Middle-Ages mindset -- and based on the rules that some of us have adopted, we will always be in that same mindset.
A while ago, I engaged in a debate about whether or not statements made by and attitudes expressed by rabbanim are influenced by the environments in which they lived, or whether such statements are, in effect, made in a vacuum and therefore unalterable by time or place. I posted about this a while back with regard to a statement by the author of the Torah Temimah about the lack of intelligence in women. Many in our community seem to take the position that because a rav in place X and time Y made a statement that it applies in all places and all times and that there is no possibility that his own personal biases, upbringing, surrounding culture and environment could have had an input into his attitudes and statements. So, if the author of the Torah Temimah says that women lack intellectual stability, then it's true of women in all places and all times. What would such a person say to the fact that it can easily be seen in today's world that women are, in fact, intellectually stable and can achieve in almost any field of intellectual endeavor? Nothing. They simply close their eyes and repeat the mantra of "Toras Emes, Toras Emes." Ignore the evidence that's right in front of your eyes. Perhaps this was best expressed by Rabbi Uren Reich a few years ago when he said:
If the Gemara tells us a metziyus, it’s emes veyatziv. There’s nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara.
While his comments address the Gemara specifically, I would not be surprised to find that he would expand that to include anyone in the accepted gedolim throughout the ages. I would find it hard to believe that Rav Reich would take the opinion of a twenty-first century scientist over a statement of Rashi, the Vilna Goan, R. Akiva Eiger or the Chazon Ish.
But such thinking leads to warped communal policy and dysfunctional communities. Rather than looking at the fact that women are obviously capable of advanced academic learning and perhaps we, as a community might benefit from additional people learning Torah from a female perspective, we simply repeat the mantra of "women aren't able to learn Torah" and forbid them from even opening up a Mishnayos, let alone a Gemara (or, in the case of some communities, even a chumash!). Rather than considering the fact that the concept of mesirah is obviously an artifact of another time and place where conditions were much different than in the present-day United States, we actively shelter child molesters, thieves and other criminals in our midst, where they are given more opportunities to commit crimes. And so on. As a result, we have dysfunctional communities that are increasingly out of step with modern social realities and will only continue to cause further tension both externally with those outside of our community and internally as those modern realities seep through the walls that are being erected (and yes, they *will* seep through).
If I could say my crisis of faith goes even to the area of communal policy, perhaps I might still be able to ride it out. But it goes even deeper than that. It goes even to the theological core of what is being presented.
It's very clear from the scientific evidence that the world is far older than 5770 years. It's very clear that the world wasn't created in six literal 24-hour days (although at one point, I presented a possible way to say that the world was created in such a fashion). It's very clear from the available evidence that there was no global flood some 4000 years ago that covered the entire earth and wiped out all animal life excepting eight humans and two to fourteen of every non-fish species. Valid questions can be asked about the Exodus, Mattan Torah and the Conquest of the Land. The idea that the Torah that we have today is a letter-perfect copy of the one that Moshe received on Mount Sinai grows more doubtful in my mind every time I think on the matter. The idea that an entire corpus of oral law was somehow passed down from generation to generation unwritten, unchanged and unaffected/uninfluenced by the biases, agendas and beliefs of the people who engaged in that transmission sounds more and more ludicrous to me every day. Even the seemingly simple concept of Yeridas HaDoros presents major difficulties for me. And for any of these points which, to me, are supported by either physical evidence or simple reason, I can, in essence, be considered a heretic who is to be shunned by the community.
Some people, it seems, seem to be willing to be bliss in their ignorance, ignore the evidence (or worse, claim that it's faked or part of some vast conspiracy to discredit the Torah) or impugn the credentials or intelligence of the people presenting the evidence (i.e., if only the PhD in physics would read the essay penned by the religious high school graduate, he would see that the entire scientific endeavor is a fraud.). But I cannot do that. I tend to believe that someone who has a PhD in physics knows a thing or two about the subject. And that an entire community of physicists working together and in competition with each other know more about the subject than people who lived before the field was seriously studied. I tend to believe people who can produce repeatable observations and experiments over those who assert something as fact but cannot (or will not) produce the evidence to back it up. How can I maintain faith in a system that seeks to present fiction as literal truth and mistaken information as scientifically accurate?
Even if it were only on theological grounds that I had difficulty, I might be able to dismiss those difficulties or push them to the side. But at this point, I'm having difficulties on all the items presented above and others that I've chosen not to mention. I can no longer be ignorant. I can no longer be in a state of bliss. I cannot unring the bell and pretend that I have not heard the sound it produced, nor would I want to. I would far rather know the truth, however ugly, than be blinded by a fantasy.
So, yes, I guess you could say that I'm suffering a crisis of faith.