People With Questions Are Not Sick

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Is there a new fifth column in our midst? A recent article deals with adults who have shed their emunah but have not walked out of the community. It analyzes causes, and offers prescriptions. It is devastatingly accurate in regard to many of the people it describes – perhaps even most. It is not accurate in regard to what is at least a significant minority of people who struggle with real issues and challenges. Confusing the two populations, I fear, will be responsible for the future loss, c”v, of many neshamos.

I have a better solution, that owes much to Marie Antionette. Let them eat matzah.

Many have observed the tension between two different symbolic messages in matzah (see Ramban, Devarim 15:5; Tosafos Pesachim. 108A s.v. mei d’hava) On the one hand, it reminds us of the speed of our redemption. On the other, it is the bread of poverty and affliction. Which is it? A symbol of cheirus, or of avdus?

R Chanoch Kerelenstein zt”l opts, as do others, for the former. Genuine cheirus, he writes in his sefer on Pesach, means liberating ourselves from the forces and faults that prevent us from becoming what Hashem wants from us, which hold us back from a fuller relationship with HKBH. By reminding us of our spiritually and physically humble roots, the avdus-related imagery of matzah helps cure us of the major obstacles to greater spiritual output: ga’avah and self-attribution. We are reminded of how small we really are. Whatever we feel proud about is not so much a matter of our own accomplishment and greatness, but of what others consider accidents of nature and nurture – and we see as Divine Providence. Whatever strong points we possess were engineered by HKBH, not ourselves. When we look closely and honestly, we are as simple and unembellished as a plain matzah. The avdus-related part of matzah therefore keeps us humble; this allows us access to higher forms of cheirus. We can only let HKBH in where we have made room by banishing the inflated ego that pushes Him out.

To Chazal, the worst incarnation of evil is Amalek. R Kerelenstein observes that, fittingly, the gematria of Amalek is rom, or raise up. One of the implements in the Amalek tool kit is raising up our worth – including our depth and our understanding – in our own eyes. When we remain conscious of our insignificance, when we are not intoxicated by our own greatness, it is easier to live with that other great tool (and gematria equivalent) of Amalek: safek, doubt.

Amalek is on a roll. People who have been exposed to general culture know that notions that were clear and evident hundreds of years ago are not so clear. Old “proofs” simply don’t work, and new doubts about all sorts of things have sprung up. To be sure, none of them puts a dent in our emunah, but the nature of that emunah has morphed. What we know to be true cannot be so convincingly demonstrated to our neighbors, who have other plausible ways of understanding the world and Torah. (Plausible does not mean correct. But incorrect does not mean implausible. We know that HKBH allows – must allow – attractive ways in every generation for people to reject. The choices need to be balanced. Avodah Zarah used to be an alternative. It has been replaced – and Amalek has capitalized on this – with the work of Spinoza, Wellhausen, Darwin and their successors.)

Struggling with doubt is not new. There were always some people who, for better or worse, questioned a bit more, or were exposed to questions that others had not thought about. These seekers did not necessarily shed their emunah. They understood the gap between the human and the Divine, the inherent uncertainty in much of our thinking. They could long for clarity, and spend decades seeking it, while accepting their immediate lack of it. Often, they would find it in time. Even if they didn’t, they did not let questions interfere with their core commitment to Hashem and His Torah. They accepted the struggle as part of life. They internalized the avdus message of matzah. Knowing that there was much that they didn’t know and couldn’t know, not having all the answers was liveable. It was no cause to walk out of practice, or even remain within as a conscious unbeliever.

What has changed from previous generations? To be sure, as the author of the Ami article states, the internet has played a role in doing the work of Amalek – spreading safek, doubt, to anyone with any curiosity. But that is the least of the changes. Two more are far more important, at least for some people.

The first is that until recently, we had major talmidei chachamim well versed in the intellectual challenges of the day who devoted much time and energy battling the mockers and skeptics on their own turf. Think R Saadia Gaon, the Rambam, R Yehuda HaLevi hundreds of years ago. Think R Samson Raphael Hirsch, R Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, R Yitzchok Isaac Halevi, and the Malbim in more recent times, battling Higher Criticism or the platform of Reform, or the extremes of Jewish Wissenschaft. These figures studied and mastered the challenges from the inside, offering real counterpunches, rather than glib bromides. They did not, and could not, “prove” their case, but they could show that alternatives existed that were as attractive as any other. (This meant that the “matzah eaters,” those who were not full of themselves, could live with the doubt without deciding firmly in the wrong direction.) We do not have such figures today. The last that I can remember was R Yaakov Weinberg zt”l.

The second factor is the appearance of wrong answers. Sending serious seekers to vaunted “experts” is worse than allowing them to struggle on their own. Once a person meets the acclaimed “answer people,” the people everyone around him tells him or her are the greatest and deepest minds and finds their answers inadequate, he no longer has any reason to wait. He has gone to the top, and knows he cannot live with their approach – often with good reason.

The world of kiruv is populated with many wonderful people. Some of them are deep thinkers, and have taken the time to read and understand the genuine questions and doubts. (Rabbi Motty Berger of Aish immediately comes to mind.) Others, however, have swallowed the Kool-Aid. They are so convinced that answers are there, they imagine that they have found them, despite the fact that they are remarkably similar to the orthoprax subjects of the article, who are described as ignorant of both Torah and the secular challenges. Often, they are hopelessly ignorant of the literature and of the complexity of the challenges. (The embrace of the Bible Codes, the often shallow way in which the serious body of evolutionary evidence is dealt with, the use of oddball minority approaches to science, and the complete unawareness of issues relating to biblical studies are examples that come to mind. A good way to tell if you are dealing with one of them is if he tells you he has spoken to “the biggest scientists” – whatever that means.)

Back to the major thrust of the article. It deals with a phenomenon that increasingly winds up on our radar – adults at risk, and adults who have fully opted out, at least in their mental space. Many, the article relates, can’t tear themselves away from their families and their community, and go through the motions (in common parlance, “becoming Orthoprax”), while privately ceasing to believe. One such person served as a moreh hora’ah in Brooklyn.

The author’s judgment is that these people who claim a crisis of faith are “sick,” and require a refuah shelemah. Would they not be off kilter, they would certainly accept the cogent answers readily available from emunah specialists, frum scientists, and kiruv professionals. To prevent such sickness in the future, the author wants more of us, young and old alike, to formally deal with the bases for our emunah, which can be provided by these same people.

He is alas correct about many, and probably most of those who match the description. Their resistance is indeed emotional, and not helped by any kind of argumentation. Their knowledge of both Torah and kefirah is lacking. The author writes this about his conversation with an anonymous kiruv worker experienced with such people:

They simply left their emunah behind, following instead a nonsensical thought process into the thicket of
Apikorsus. Had they any true understanding of Judaism, they would have never felt threatened by secular thought. The problem is their superficial grasp of both topics…He describes them almost as mentally ill. “To me, [the disbelief] is a sickness,” he says.

It is vital to understand that there are many others whose questions are sincere, and whose situation is worsened by putting them in contact with purveyors of superficial and simplistic “answers.” There are far more of them than we think. People who encounter friends struggling with questions need to ascertain whether they belong to the group described in the article, or the many people dealing with real issues and challenges. Rather than to meet well-meaning people who provide simplistic, facile and unsatisfactory approaches, it would be better to have them meet frum people of deep intellectual ability who also struggle, without detracting from their shemiras hamitzvos. There are many, many of them. They will provide some answers, but more importantly, will be models of how to live with questions.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein is one of the most talented people on the kiruv scene. If he says what he is quoted as saying, I will believe him.

Emotional problems are behind almost all kefra. “In addition to many other things, to stop believing is inconvenient.” Immersed in a religious world, they are suddenly cut off from their entire milieu. “Why would they do it if they didn’t have some emotional issues?”

Why? Because some people have enough intellectual integrity to live by what their minds tell them, even if it is inconvenient. Isn’t that what we Torah-true Jews often have to do? Is it impossible to believe that others do the same? Perhaps Rabbi Milstein hasn’t met them. I have.

We have to be careful to differentiate between the two types of questioners. Labeling all of them “sick” is wrong and will have disastrous consequences. Learn about the second group, and find out the people in your community to send them to. Those questioners may need, like the rest of us, a yeshuah, but not a refuah.

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14 Responses

  1. Pesach Wolicki says:

    Well done Rav Adlerstein.

    In both the Ami article as well as in Rabbi Grylak’s recent editorials on this subject there has been no mention of the most basic solution to the problem.

    The yeshivish community does not learn machshava. By “machshava” I don’t mean musar. I mean philosophy. Moreh Nevuchim, Drashos haRan, etc. in any serious way. Yeshiva bochurim who can read a maharam shif can not tell you the basic machlokes between the Rambam and Ramban about olam haba or between the Rambam and Ran on the prerequisites for nevu’a. This is basic stuff.

    More to the point, this material is the basis for modern thought that deals with relevant questions today.

    Along with this problem, the delegitimizing of Rav Soloveichik and Rav Kook, the two thinkers who dealt with modern theological challenges most thoroughly, cuts these talmidim out of the main sources of really satisfying answers to these questions. too bad they’re treif!!

    Question is: are the rebbeim in the yeshivos even qualified to speak about these sugyas?

  2. Dr. E says:

    To talk about “mental illness” of the heart or blaming the Internet are merely scapegoats for weak foundations that have been established in chinuch or kiruv setting. IMHO, the emphasis on dress and outward appearance within the Yeshivish/Chareidi world is no doubt a culprit to the phenomenon described in the article. Proponents of such conformity who don’t have emunah problems per se, subscribe to the thesis that changing one’s behavior will lead to appropriate attitude change. Consequently, those with challenges will ultimately fall into place after a while. While there is some evidence in the literature to suggest behavior-attitude congruence and vice-versa, this is by no means a slam-dunk. And the article bears out that there are those who do not fit that correlation.

    Unfortunately, the individuality of outward appearance has been stifled within the Yeshivos as well as the Bais Yaakovs in the past 25 years through uniforms, dress codes, or “normative” standards (one’s hat must be black and a certain style, or else he is too “out-of-the-box for comfort). They are empty and unrelated to Halacha and those who leave the community “merely” intellectually or in totality have figured out that they have been sold a bill of goods, especially when inevitably they are exposed to other communities who do not share those same external standards. The external focus is really a microcosm for the lack of tolerance for legitimate questions by youth. Rules rule and there is no room for individual differences and expression. While it’s great to state that “questions are tolerated”, that must be done sincerely and by Mechanchim who are equipped to know at least some of the answers to the questions–while also including an occasional “I don’t know” or “it depends” as part of the lexicon.

    Another factor is likely the “burn-out” that is the result of pushing all males to learn Gemara for 8-12 hours a day from 5th Grade on. Naive proponents of such chinuch, sometimes in high places, have the pipe dream that this is necessary to produce more Gedolim from the System (even at the expense of collateral “karbanos”). Well, I’m still waiting on seeing the first Gadol from this novel chiddush to chinuch. But, as the article points out, we are seeing the karbanos, and at a higher ratio than the proponents predicted. If they only would have given a money-back guarantee.

    The goals of chinuch (and kiruv) should be far more “ambitious” than what we are seeing today. They should include promoting inspired and functional young adults who are passionate about their Yiddishkeit and will be a light among the nations, including Klal Yisrael. They should be “koveh ittim” and be contributors to society spiritually, economically, and through Chessed. They should be moral and ethical people who embrace the ideals and Halacha of the Torah, regardless of the color or material of any particular article of clothing which brands them. People should not be defined by the three-block radius in which they reside, from the Yeshiva that they attended, or from the shtiebel that they attend. Any “conformity” should be towards normative Halacha and allow for flavors within those red lines.

    This by no means implies that a total acculturation with the “outside world” is to be embraced. Those systems of chinuch are frought with their own dangers and we have seen “karbanos” on that side as well. The point is that we need to go back to tolerance for various nuance or shades of grey in one’s expression of Yiddishkeit. No one system has a monopoly or all of the answers. And we should take the best of all communities out there and learn from one another rather than insulating and disparaging.

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    I went back and carefully read the Ami article. The author is focusing on fakers, that is athiests who dress as chareidim and even one who is a posek while not being a believer. He writes about men who love living the life, walking the walk ,so to speak, but don’t believe in the catechism of orthodoxy any longer. His main concern is that a bochur who may date his daughter is a faker .
    His problem is that you can’t judge a bochur by his black hat.
    Rabbi Adlerstein seems to want to divide the subject and exclude sincere questioners while agreeing that we have to eliminate the fakers. I hear it but I am still willing to be melamed zechus on the fakers. In an interview I did with an early talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler,Rabbi Yosef Tendler, he recalled that there were two boys in Lakewood who were “bums’ and others went to Rav Aharon and wanted them thrown out of the yeshiva. Rav Aharon refused unless they were harming others because their mere desire to learn in Lakewood in those days was an indication that there is “something there”. One of these two is now a Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Tendler concluded.
    It is so hard to discern what a self proclaimed apikorus really believes ,especially when he keeps all the mitzvos. Maybe there is something besides actual heresy that causes the faker to claim he doesn’t believe while still keeping yoshon,cholov yisroel and not eating gebrochts on Pesach. Can someone please help me distinguish between the true athiest and the baal taavah with a big yetzer horah who still wants to be frum.

  4. Harry Maryles says:

    Brilliant article! Your approach is truly an honest one that deals with truth rather than conjecturing. The issues that generate Kefira are real and not the result of mental deficiencies.

    While I think it is true that often the genesis of this type of thinking may be in the emotional realm, once the search for ultimate truth is underway – whatever its genesis – real questions emerge that are difficult to answer. Certainly not in the simplistic ways that are often the case by those who lack any in depth knowledge of the issues.

    Intelligent and educated people who search for truth are not ‘sick’ and – as you suggest – turned off even more than they were before the encounter with these people… whose simplistic answers betray a woeful lack knowledge and/or understanding of the issues involved.

    That said we are nonetheless left with a serious problem. I am amazed that it is posible that there are actual Poskim that are Kofrim. The article in Ami spoke of one. That ‘Posek’ spoke of others like him that sit in Kollel. Considering the vast numbers of Yungeleit in the world today, the chances that he is the only Posek who is a Kofer is pretty slim. Odds are there are others – and that they are all still in the closet!

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “As a side point, I am under the impression that Rav Kook was famous for vigorously opposing this approach in his approach towards non-belief.”

    One can say that both emotion and intellect affect both belief and disbelief. To use emotional bias as a sole reason to explain disbelief may be a problem because it can also be used against Torah believers(R. Adlerstein in “The Gospel of Judas and Jewish Faith”, 4/25/06, wrote “OK, it’s all about biases. The academic world was and is largely biased against traditional religious belief…And I certainly recognize my bias towards belief. I would be comfortable to call it a draw, but so many Jews won’t). On the other hand, R. Milstein may very well be correct, in part, about the significant and unrecognized role emotions often play regarding people who go OTD, even if they are not the sole cause).

    I found it fascinating that R. Chaim Pinchos Sheinberg in Derech Emunah U’bitachon(Parshas B’shalach, IIRC) writes about the Kovetz Mamorim’s obligating someone logically, with a chain of reasoning, from belief in God to another aspect of belief, as “eino muchrach kol kach”, based on the Chasid Yavetz(he develops a different approach, based on Rishonim, to deal with R. Elchanon’s question from a Bar Mitzvah boy having to believe).

    (The reason why I find Derech Emunah U’bitachon’s discussion of Kovetz Mamorim fascinating is because R. Daniel Eidonsohn wrote that his “Daas Torah” was, in private, given a negative opinion by an influential educator who said that “you are a danger to klall Yisroel. You are going to cause confusion and doubt by telling people that there are multiple ways of understanding fundamental hashkofa issues”. Here we see that R. C.P. Sheinberg disagrees with an aspect of the Kovetz Maamorim, thus forcing, even today, “multiple ways of understanding fundamental hashkofa issues”).

  6. Rabbi with doubts says:

    Speaking as a Rav of a major congregation in the NY area, and having had experience in Kiruv for many years, I completely resonate with Rav Alderstein’s point in this important article.

    I would not be intellectually honest if I pretended that questions about how G-d can allow the suffering of thousands of innocents in tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes did not greatly trouble me. I would be dishonest if I did not state that facile, foolish statements that “explain” these occurrences (e.g. Japan is being punished for not releasing the Yeshiva boy drug runners) make me cringe and embarrassed to be associated with such things. I would be a fraud if I did not admit that there are statements in the Torah and Chazal that cannot be squared with what science has proven, such as the flood story, etc.

    And yet, I am a ma’amin. I retain my faith, and can still be a teacher of Torah, although I have pressing, nagging, infuriating questions that I do not know the answer to, only because the weight of all the good that Hashem does is too much to throw away because of my questions. I have learned to live with the notion that the ALmighty is unfathomable and inscrutable, and although I at times cannot understand how a merciful god allows such monstrous cruelty in the world, some of which he alone is responsible for, I continue to cling to the hope that some day I will be given answers for the unanswerable.

    Does this make me sick, according to Rabbi Milstein? If so, I doubt that he has any elixir that can cure me.

  7. ML says:

    Could it be that the attitude towards doubt as put forth in the article is a reflection of the famous position taken by Rav Elchonon Wasserman in kovetz ma’amaros regarding emuna? My impression is that the approach he took has strongly influenced the way many frum people view disbelief. For those unfamiliar, in a nutshell, he raises the question (along with others) how can it be that the Torah is so harsh in its treatment of a nonbeliever when the greatest philosophical minds were not able to come to real belief? He answers by developing an approach that argues that disbelief is as reflection of character flaws. People are biased to want to come to false conclusions about belief so that they are no longer bound by its requirements.

    As a side point, I am under the impression that Rav Kook was famous for vigorously opposing this approach in his approach towards non-belief.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Once again, R Adlerstein hits the proverbial nail on the head 100%. When Torah observance is packaged and sold as if it is the elixir for everything and that living with doubt is a form of mental illness, with a one type fit all approach, that IMO ignores the following facts that RYBS pointed out repeatedly:

    1) The end of Slichos enumerates many of the Ishei HaTanach and the Neviim to remind us that there are numerous paths to Teshuvah within the Mesorah.

    2) Living with doubt is something that every Jew must do on a daily basis. Teiku is not just a pneumonic device that the Amoraim used as a means of throwing their hands up in frustation at the end of a Sugya where there was no ostensible means of reaching a conclusion.

    I agree with R Adlerstein that we need more approaches, and less certainty in relyng on “answers”, which are only as good their foundations, and which are subject to being viewed as suspect as soon as a question arises that questions the veracity of the same.

    I would add the following which has long been a pet peeve of mine. I would suggest that learning Chumash every week with at least Rashi and Ramban would help anyone realize that while Halacha follows a vertical path, that within the Mesorah, with respect to Chumash, one can posit that a horizontal track exist to the effect that there are many equally valid and inspiring ways of understanding the Parsha.

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Bravo Rabbi Adlerstein for exposing the flaws in the Ami article so eloquently. After reading this article all I could think was that the attitude conveyed by the author and the “experts” he quotes are as much a part of the the problem as anything else. I almost become sick myself upon reading spritual doubters being described “almost as mentally ill”.

    The internet is only a new problem in its pervasive ease of access, but the “problem” is an as old as religion itself. (The “enlightenment” did far more damage to religious without today’s technological wizardry.) It has to do with our ability to confront, deal with, and assimilate new information. If you hide people in a little bubble and tell them there is only “truth” inside the bubble and everything outside is “sheker” they can only remain firm while hermetically sealed. Once some of the “sheker” seeps in and they see that its not all “sheker” then the “truth” inside the bubble and many, if not all, of those who propagated it become, at best, suspect.

    If anything, religious belief, is much more “emotional” that non belief. Religious belief requires, above all, the non-quantifiable ability to trust. The same senses and intellect that allow many believers to come to conclusion that our world cannot be the manifestation of random events can also be used to come to the opposite conclusion. As science advances, the “gaps” that many have used to “prove” the existence of a creator decrease. Absent a strong trust in the validity our mesorah and those who transmit it, a rational (non-mentally ill) person can easily come to conclusions that are at variance with our beliefs.

  10. Raymond says:

    I have to wonder if anybody really knows what the ultimate truth is about things. Perhaps even using a phrase like Ultimate Truth, places a built-in bias to such a question. Meanwhile, perhaps all of us who assume we know the answers, are really only guessing, if we were honest about it.

    I think of Rav Hirsch, who, at least according to my understanding, developed all of his other beliefs based on the assumption that G-d gave the Torah to us Jews on Mount Sinai some 3,311 years ago. Such an assumption may pose no problem for the believer, but what good does that do the skeptic?

    Furthermore, when religious people reduce the genuine questions that skeptics have, to ad hominem attacks, saying that skeptics do not want to have to answer to a Higher Authority, are such personal attacks any better of a response than when Freud attacked religious people by positing that G-d is nothing but a projection of our Father Figure? For decades I have dreamed of attending not exactly a debate, but rather a discussion between an Orthodox Rabbi whose line of thought is in the tradition of a Rambam or a Rav Hirsch, and some skeptic who is quite open to learning the truth about life, wherever it may lead him.

  11. cohen says:

    Further examples to Shades of Gray

    RYBS R’Y Hutner(as per testimony of RAL),R’Y Davis of Mountaindale,R’Y Zilberman

  12. YEA says:

    To add to Rabbi Adlerstein’s point about people who “have enough intellectual integrity to live by what their minds tell them, even if it is inconvenient”:

    Isn’t it ironic how we praise converts to Judaism, including former priests and Christian missionaries, for their ability to leave everything with which they grew up for having discovered what they believe to be the truth, while we assure ourselves that anyone who leaves the Judaism with which they were raised cannot possibly be doing so based on their own conviction that they have found what they believe to be the truth? Or would Rabbi Milstein also claim that converts to Judaism must have “some emotional issues”?

  13. Shades of Gray says:

    Chazal say that Hillel is “me’chayeiv”, obligates, poor people to study Torah, Yosef, handsome people, etc. Assuming public lectures on emunah/hashkafah for frum people, while valuable resources, are not meant to deal with every type of issue or every type of person, those with any degree of Orthoprax proclivities(compunding any primary problem is that such people label themselves “Orthoprax”)would seem to be able to exempt themselves with the argument that the problem is not them, rather the generation which did not adequately deal with issues to their satisfaction(this point may be debated, but speaking of the topic of questions, it seems to be a good one). What is their “mechayev”, if they disagree with the assessment inherent in some of the AMI article quotes(eg, “following instead a nonsensical thought process into the thicket of apikorsus”)?

    The real “me’chayeiv” of anyone with questions–Orthoprax or not- would seem to be someone who actually was or is aware of an issue, thinks about it serioualy and deeply, and is eventually successful. I think of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, in at least one type of example, as being a “me’chayeiv”, as discussed in “Facing the Truths in History”(TUM Journal):

    “Knowing about Rabbi Weinberg’s struggle regarding the rabbinic attitude to Gentiles is particularly important, I was told, because it enables Jews deeply troubled by these issues to retain their spiritual compass; to recognize that such inner struggle can be legitimate as long as it takes place within the context of an ultimate commitment to the sacrosanct and immutable character of the halakhic tradition…These letters also portray Rabbi Weinberg the man—his lonely, frustrated, bitter and tragic life after the destruction of his world during the Holocaust… To see Rabbi Weinberg’s deep inner struggles and to know that, in spite of it all, he still remained Rabbi Weinberg is religiously inspiring”

  14. L. Oberstein says:

    Being Jewish is not a simple matter. There are those who have distilled it into a religion, one must believe a certain set of beliefs and if one strays , he is a heretic. After what I saw in how supposedly great people treated R.Slifkin, I became disillusioned. If one who keeps the mitzvos but believes that the world is older than the Jewish calendar year is a heretic, if my role model is a rabbi who lets his prayers be sold for magic cures and whose recitation of my name and my mother’s name will cure me of all that may ail me or my dear ones, then what has this to do with my religion. On the other hand, a Jew who loves his people and is willing to give his life to keep the Jewish People alive but doesn’t always keep every jot and tittle of the minutae is outside the camp, then how can I relate to such an exclusive relgion. At the seder we have four sons, and we have lots of Jews whose pintele yid is buried deep within, I feel more kinship with those who love Jews than those who put up wall posters full of venom against anyone who doesn’t think exactly as they do. I pity them that they have taken my beutiful Yiddishkeit and corrupted it into a mere religion.