What happens when one day a rabbi discovers that he has lost his faith? Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher asked himself that question – which turned into to a fascinating study.
Seven rabbis agreed to “talk about it” – three Conservative community rabbis in the United States, and four strictly Orthodox rabbis who live in Israel and have a double identity: Secretly atheists, and rabbis and believers openly.
“Atheists in closet: Rabbis who lost God”
Published 07.28.13, 11:13, ynetnews.com
Over a year ago, I published a blog post on a very similar topic called When We’re Left Behind. It was based on an article written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty for NPR.org called “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”.
How crushing would it be to love your Pastor or Rabbi, having attended his (or her) congregation for years and growing close to him (or her) as a model of faith, and then to discover that this “Holy person” has no faith in God at all and in fact is an atheist? What would that do you your faith (or mine)?
I don’t want to recycle something I’ve written before, but this brings up some new questions about the nature of religion (as opposed to faith) and how we live it out in our lives. While I certainly can’t deny the social role of church for Christians, we lack (in most cases) the connection to our religious community based on ethnicity, culture, and sometimes race. It is true there are churches that have such a basis, such as African-American churches and Korean churches, but for the most part, the Church as a social entity is just a group of people who (in theory) share the same theology and doctrine about God but who otherwise come from a wide spectrum of social, economic, educational, and employment backgrounds (this probably isn’t true in an absolute sense, but I’ll use it as a general principle for the sake of this essay).
Jewish synagogue life is a different thing because what is being shared is a lot of cultural, ethnic, traditional, religious, and even national and DNA components. It goes back to the difference between “What is a Jew?” and “What is a Christian?” You can’t just say people who have different religions. Being Jewish is enormously more complicated and in some ways, elusive in definition.
So I can see a Rabbi who becomes an atheist having a tougher time in leaving his/her community than a Pastor in the same situation (not that it wouldn’t be really hard on the Pastor as well). From a Rabbi’s point of view, if you are leading a shul in a small community, leaving the synagogue would be leaving behind your entire social, friendship, and possibly family circles. Your entire life, or most of it, probably flows through synagogue life. I suppose something similar could be said of a Pastor as well, but perhaps not quite to the same depth.
How about extending the topic beyond Rabbis and Pastors? My wife says that at our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, the Friday night service is aimed at more secular Jews who connect socially and through traditions, while the Saturday Shabbat service is more for “religious Jews.” The missus even says that some of the synagogue members wish that the current Rabbi would retire/move on (he’s still in his 40s, so is nowhere near retirement age) because he’s “too religious.”
At the opposite religious extreme are the Ultra-Orthodox or the Haredim, who seem to take the slightest infraction of the mitzvot, even among those Jewish people who are not Haredi, so, so seriously, to the point of being abusive and assaultive. It seems like something has gone horribly wrong in certain corners religious Judaism where, on the one extreme, God is all but ignored, and on the other, God is exceptionally tightfisted and punitive, and adherents experience no problem in actually attacking other human beings.
I don’t know if you get that exactly in Christianity, although to be sure, we have churches that are so extremely liberal that God seems like an afterthought and Biblical standards are as fluid as quicksand. We also have churches and groups so hyper-conservative that they too don’t care who they hurt or what damage they do to other human beings, even desecrating the funerals of military men and women for the sake of their distorted theology and need to push their weight around. I’d call that going horribly wrong, too.
It’s enough to make me lose my faith in religious people.
But what makes a person lose their faith in God? Of some of the folks and groups I’ve just mentioned, they probably didn’t have faith as such to begin with. Their religious venues are more a tradition-based, cultural, and social outlet, as opposed to a gathering where an encounter with God is sought. At the opposite extreme, it may not be God that anyone is looking for, but the need to impose internal punitive, restrictive, and ultra-conservative standards on the entire environment of human beings. As far as I can tell, God’s chosen method of operation isn’t to either ignore His standards or massively exaggerate them and then force them on others without so much as a by your leave.
I know my Pastor will disagree with me, but I believe we have a choice. I believe we have lots of choices in life, the first or at least the most important being whether or not we are going to have a relationship with God. After that, other choices follow. I believe God is like a Father or teacher (sometimes the roles overlap). Certainly if we act foolishly, we should fear Him, but fear isn’t the primary foundation upon which our relationship is built. Neither is hate. Neither is casualness and pandering to social agendas.
Once we have faith in God, and more importantly, trust, how can we lose that? Some folks say you can’t unless you never had it in the first place:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
–John 10:27-30 (NASB)
That creates a problem because here we see people, Pastors and Rabbis, who have lost their faith (although Jews, because they are born into covenant, are accountable whether they have faith or not). Did they have it in the first place or did something else happen? What if they actually have faith somewhere at their core, faith in God that is, but lost something else instead? What if they lost their faith in religious people or the mechanics of religion?
I don’t think I could lose faith in God but there are days I’d throw religion and religious people out the window, slam it shut, lock it, and never look out again. A life in community, whether in person or online, can be really frustrating at times. We have all of these high ideals about love, companionship, worship, and holiness, but our real lives are so messy by comparison. We don’t always treat each other well, even when we intend to.
Some people are cranky by their nature or because they have adopted a victim stance and out of that, are perpetually defensive (I know bloggers who write out of that position pretty much all the time). Some people are generally OK until you hit one of their “hot button topics,” and then watch out (I wonder if that’s how I’m going to be next week in Sunday school?). Being in community with religious people is like walking through a mine field or living in an alcoholic family. You never know when the peace will be shattered by an abrupt and devastating explosion.
If I ever lost my faith, it wouldn’t be in God, it would be in human beings.
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
There are times when I think it’s the ocean that’s dirty and only a few drops are clean.
Until you can see the good within a person, you are incapable of helping him.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
And sometimes that’s an amazingly difficult thing to do. Reading quotes from Gandhi and Rabbi Freeman present a very pleasant picture, but life in the trenches of religion is anything but, at least for those folks who are struggling with faith (and don’t we all at some point).
I know why a Rabbi and Pastor (or probably just ordinary people) would stay in their religious communities after they’d lost faith in God…because of the continued social rewards. Most people who lose faith in people but not God would just leave the community and either try to find another or bail on community life entirely. But what if community life fails you but you still find God is present within the synagogue or church? What do you do then? Are you even aware that it’s God who’s holding you there? Maybe what feels like losing faith in God is just a protracted silence? God doesn’t always talk. But we’re supposed to have faith in the desert too.
I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I just know that this religious life that is supposed to bring us closer to God isn’t pain-free, and it seems for some folks that the pain increases exponentially as we strive to approach Holiness. Maybe that’s why most religious people hit a comfortable plateau and just stay there, neither being too hot or too cold in their spirituality, but only lukewarm. Maybe that’s why some people quit completely, because being numb is better than being set on fire and writhing in the flames.
Where are the Gandhis and the Freemans with their soothing, supportive words? Where is the so called “community of faith?” Where is God?
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…
“Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)”