Friday, June 3, 2011

Dealing with Crises of Faith

For about ten years, I've been dealing with people suffering from challenges of faith, to a lesser or greater degree. This ranges from simple questions about dinosaurs, to serious questions about fundamental aspects of Torah, to full-blown crises where the person is seriously struggling with their faith, to people who have decided that they just don't believe but want to survive in the Orthodox community.

The number of such people approaching me for help with this matter increases each year. Lately, however, I have been turning most of these people away, for several reasons. The main reason is these sorts of things really need a face-to-face discussion, and so geographical separation rules out most people. But there are other reasons, too. These discussions require more time than I have available. And such sensitive topics require confidentiality, especially because people often misunderstand what I've said. I have learned, to my dismay, that often people that I thought I could trust, end up repeating what I've said - which wouldn't be so bad if they repeated it accurately, but they often don't.

However, I don't want to just turn people away empty-handed, or leave emails in my burgeoning inbox unanswered. These people are unhappy, and I might be able to help them. So I have decided to outline my approach for dealing with such cases, in a (non-consecutive) series of posts. For the reasons given above and below, I won't be as specific as I am in a one-to-one conversation. But I hope it will provide some useful help in this area, both for people suffering from crises of faith, and for others who interact with such people.

The very first thing that I do in any such conversation, is to learn about the person speaking to me. First of all, I want to know what is bothering them. But, depending on what they answer, and before responding to those concerns, I will ask some or all of the following questions: How old are they? Are they single or married? What is their social framework? What is their educational background? Do they enjoy and appreciate the Orthodox lifestyle, in terms of both mitzvah observance and the community? How do they ideally picture themselves in ten or twenty years from now? I also try to understand their personality as much possible.

The relevance of some or all of these questions may not appear obvious. But my reasons for asking these questions are simple: Chanoch lena'ar al pi darko. There are many people, whether Charedi or Modern Orthodox or atheist, who are so obsessed with what they see as the Truth that they want to impose it upon everyone. But I think that this can be thoughtless and narcissistic. A person is not necessarily helping others by attempting to force his own idea of the truth on them. Let me illustrate this with two extreme examples, at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Suppose I am approached by an adult who is happily settled within the charedi community. This person is not tormented by a crisis of faith; he is just bothered about dinosaurs and the age of the universe, and is unwilling to toss science out of the window. He's fine with every other aspect of charedi Judaism, and he is not especially intellectually sophisticated.

This person is not ready to accept the approach to Bereishis that I present in The Challenge Of Creation. Even discussing it would be more likely to confuse and harm him rather than to help him. Now I despise the approach of saying that the six days were actually six eras, and in my book I explain at length why that approach is entirely unsatisfactory and unworkable. But this is all that this person is capable of accepting. It will enable him to accept modern science without unsettling his religious worldview. So I grit my teeth, and say, "Well, there are those such as Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman who explain that six days could be six eras. It's not my personal approach, but I think that you'll find it helpful."

On the other hand, suppose I am approached by someone who is single and who barely believes in Judaism, if at all. He also does not especially value the Orthodox lifestyle. This person sees no reason or value to keeping mitzvos if he isn't convinced that the fundamentals of faith are true. His personality is of a skeptical, cynical mindset.

I see a great danger in trying to convince such a person to stay Orthodox. The reason is that even if I am successful in convincing him to do so, he is very likely to decide, further down the line, that he doesn't want to stay in the Orthodox community after all (since he doesn't appreciate the lifestyle). And by that time, if he is married (and especially if he has children), this can cause immense problems for other people as well as for himself. So instead, I tell the person that while there is much to be gained by being part of the Orthodox community, there are serious risks in his marrying an Orthodox girl. I don't tell him or even advise him what to do, but I try to make him aware of the risks and benefits in each direction.

However, both of the above examples are extremes that I rarely encounter. Far more common in my personal range of experience is people who are somewhere in between. For the many people who have questions Bereishis, rabbinic authority or suchlike, I wrote my books. But the more serious cases, who contact me with a crisis of faith after having already read my books and who are already aware of the general state of scholarship on the issues that concern them, are usually quite similar. The typical person who approaches me is male, in their late twenties or thirties, and usually married with children. This person finds keeping mitzvos to be meaningful and rewarding, and he values being part of the Orthodox community. But he is bothered by severe questions of faith, or has even lost it already, and wants to know what to do.

This is the type of person that Ami magazine described as "Orthoprax" and seemed to recommend declaring as the evil enemy and flushing out of society. My approach for such people is different. I shall elaborate upon it in future posts (though I don't yet know when; it could be tomorrow, it could be a month from now). Don't forget that you can subscribe to these posts by submitting your email address in the form at the top right of this page.


  1. People turn to you for a reason

  2. I think you do a diservice throwing the 6 eras appraoch out the window, like it was the only concordance approach and simple apologetics. There are many other approaches which I know you are aware of (such as special and general relativistic concerns, shmitta cycles, creation in thought, quantom retroactive past history, etc) that are much more satisfactory than a simplistic and apologetic "6 eras" statement.

  3. Thanks for this article and series.

    Any advice for a person whose mindset fits the second category you described but his family situatuion is the third?

    What is such a person to do??

  4. This is very interesting. I'm looking forward to future posts.

    I'm curious what you would say to someone who values all their friends, relatives and social structures within Orthodoxy, but who finds many of the practices meaningless, restrictive, sometimes oppressive and therefore resents having to do or keep many of them. He knows he needs to keep doing and practicing the "club handshake" and other club requirements in order to get the social benefits of being part of the club, but he is resenting that. He particularly resents that he would be kicked out of the club - losing all of the social connections of a lifetime - if he were to not perform all the club rituals according to the club rules.

    Of course his upsetness is also emotional, and not logical. Most people like him did not choose the club, they were born into it, and so their family, friends and club practices were all part of the emotional building blocks of their identity. To ask him, as a human being, to approach these issues strictly in an intellectual way is asking him to cut off a part of his humanness - his emotions.

    I wonder how you would have him deal with his emotional issues and distress in these scenarios, which is an essential part of his experience.

  5. In the yeshivah world the way you are taught to think, is not to think at all. The Rabbis (a.k.a. brainwashers) will do all the thinking for you. You must believe everything and anything that is told to you, regardless of whether it sounds rational or nonsensical.

    "To fail in this, is the worse sin one can commit."

    This is what we face when trying to help a fellow Jew who is struggling with their faith.

    The best solution to this problem, and one that you are capable of doing well, is to write another best seller on the matter. That way no one cannot misquote you and it is there in the book to read over and over again, until our brain is returned to a Rational and true Torah way of thinking.

    Rememmber the old adage, save a soul and you save a world.

  6. There are many other approaches which I know you are aware of (such as special and general relativistic concerns, shmitta cycles, creation in thought, quantom retroactive past history, etc) that are much more satisfactory than a simplistic and apologetic "6 eras" statement.

    For reasons that I explain in my book, I don't find them any more satisfactory, sorry! But that's not the point of this post.


  8. I don't have your level of experience with these matters, but I would think that even those of a relatively cynical and skeptical demeanor, yet who are willing to live an Orthodox lifestyle, raise their children Orthodox, and not annoy their community by scoffing or being blatantly heretical, should be encouraged to become Orthodox and marry a (hopefully Left-Wing) Orthodox girl. There may be dangers, but social pressure, inertia mellowing with age will prevent most middle-aged men from going off the derekh and leaving everything behind.

    The most important thing is, non-Orthodox Jews are extremely likely to intermarry or have children who intermarry. So even if all the semi-agnostic liberal Democrat Jews in the US were to become Modern Orthodox, this would most likely be a great thing, in terms at least of the continuation (and reproduction and increase) of the Jewish people. I figure, why can't Ashkenazim be like Sephardim? Generally, even Sephardim who are not that observant and not that Orthodox hashkafically will go to an Orthodox shul anyway.

    Thank you for doing this series -- it sounds like a wonderful idea and I'm sure it will be very helpful.

  9. If you can provide me with the email addresses or other identifying characteristics of those who have contacted you, my team of Ami-trained commandos will snuff out these orthoprax traitors. With pleasure.

  10. I think that to avoid the Ami-mindset, all observant Jews, whether Orthodox or Orthoprax, should commit to refuse to ever state their personal beliefs.

  11. Isaac writes: "In the yeshivah world the way you are taught to think, is not to think at all. "

    Do they teach you to overgeneralize like that in your world?

  12. Rav Slifkin,

    First of all this post really brings a topic that every teacher have the obligation to meditate on.

    Concerning teaching the "6 eras model" to that uneducated man, I ask you:

    What if some teacher of that big and famous places who like to make people discover judaism uses the same thinking process and decides to teach the "Big Hoax model" (world is 5771 years and made to appear old).

    Let's say this guy knows this is flawed but argues that the students don't have the maturity to understand as it is suposed to be understood.

    Let's say this groop of students are baalei teshuva, observant and happy as such (yep, probably, but not certainly brainwashed) and want something to ease their minds.

    In that case, how do you perceive the differences (if any) in your approach and this teacher?

  13. Very much looking forward to future posts on this topic.

    Far be it from me to tell you how to spend your time (there are of course many variables), but in cases where you speaking to a person might help him in his faith, I would think that doing so is a tremendous, tremendous mitzvah.

  14. I too am troubled by the your use of the overly emotive word "despise."

    Lawrence Kaplan

  15. Phil said...
    Isaac writes: "In the yeshivah world the way you are taught to think, is not to think at all. "

    "Do they teach you to overgeneralize like that in your world?"

    I have attended yeshivah for over 14 years.

    When asking a question that is of a challenging nature towards the Rabbi's teachings, the response is most always "It is forbidden to even think that way." or "That is not a question to be asked in this class."
    And forget about a question that even remotely sounds atheistic, you better duck or else.

    In the yeshivah world a student is never asked to write a thesis, because that would entail a personal theory on a Torah matter, which might contradict what the Rabbis believe is the truth, and will develop the student's own thinking process. A no no in the yeshiva world.

    Guilt and low self-esteem is what is instilled in the yeshivah student for having a mind of their own. We are told, "You want to compare yourself to the great Rabbinate and our sages of blessed memory!

    Is it not our objective, our goal, our ambitions, to aim for the highest level. How can we when told, "Do not even think you are anywhere near their level.

    Just ask the average yeshivah student what he thinks about the Rationalist Judaism blog we are on now, and tell him that you disagree with his Rabbis with a rational argument, and you will hear him say "Apikorsim, all of you," because of the guilt they are taught to bear, for just thinking about having their own opinion.

    This is what has to be dealt with when trying to help a fellow Jew who is struggling with their faith.

  16. I don't see any problem with "despising" something that makes a mockery of human reason.

    Also, please stop conflating "left-wing orthodox" with "rational." I send my kids to left wing Orthodox schools and still have to do a significant amount of detox.

  17. > Isaac said...
    In the yeshivah world the way you are taught to think, is not to think at all.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I agree with the sentiment. One may never say, “The gemara doesn’t make sense,” only, “I don’t understand.” It’s not so much that you’re taught not to think at all as it is that there are certain lines you can’t cross. I was often told in response to questions that I asked that (insert gemara/name of rav) says that it’s better not to think about such things.

    In a sense it’s true. Not thinking about troubling issues is less likely to lead someone away from faith than investigating them. But have you ever tried not to think about pink elephants…?

  18. You still don't think you're exaggerating when you say "they're taught not to think at all", do you, Isaac?

  19. Phil said...
    You still don't think you're exaggerating when you say "they're taught not to think at all", do you, Isaac?

    The way you paraphrase it (out of context), it is an exaggeration.

    No one may, let alone can, teach one not to think at all.
    We are describing here the brainwashing method used in teaching, as a whole, in the yeshivah world, by most (if not, all) Rabbis.

    When it comes to our own theories on Torah or something that we may have learned in a secular form, if it is not consistent with the Rabbi's. Then we are discouraged from it, one way or another. e.g. as G*3 puts it, in a mild manner, we are told, "that it’s better not to think about such things."

  20. Isaac brings up a very good point, and quite relevant to inyana diyoma. What is Torah if not Chiddush. And yet -- where are the chiddushim? Where are the bodies of work, the theses, the output from all the legions of yungerleit? I need to turn to Mrs. Lebowitz and Zornberg to get chiddusim?

  21. sad in shidduchimJune 6, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    Rabbi Slifkin,

    Unfortunately, if you don't provide answers to people, nobody will. I have been in yeshiva my whole life, including 2 years in Israel in some of the best yeshivos, and finding meaningful, rational answers to serious questions is almost impossible. In fact, even having a conversation is almost impossible. While many people will start a serious conversation, as soon as it goes beyond their knowledge they give the "better not to think about it" approach, or a variation.

    While your books are wonderful and informative, it is sad that a bochur in yeshiva has to turn to them for answers because he cant find answers within the yeshiva setting.

    As for getting married, that is another favorite, "get married, settle down and everything will be fine." I, for one, am very hesitant to get married to a girl and shock her later on with my doubts of faith.

  22. Sad In Shudduchim -

    In my opinion you are right to hesitate to get married to a girl with whom you have not shared your doubts in faith with.

    Those who are saying "get married, settle down and everything will be fine" just want to make the problem go away by putting a bandaid on it. Marriage will certainly give you a certain sense of satisfaction with life (if it is a good marriage with a good mutual relationship), and children will keep you distracted, but I don't think that anyone who has ever had doubts will tell you that marriage makes them go away.

    Another very important thing to remember is that a marriage is a RELATIONSHIP, and relationships need honesty to endure and develop into a healthy relationship. Especially with the inevitable challenges that life brings. It's better that you "shock" a girl in the beginning, and even scare her away if she can't deal with your doubts, than marry her without telling her about your doubts. And for all you know, you might be surprised to one day find a girl with the same doubts that you have who isn't put off by yours! Wouldn't it be nice to find a girl that you can relate to in this way?

    There are too many marriages that fall apart because they were started on false pretenses because they were encouraged by people who may have meant well, but who paved a road to hell with their good intentions. So much suffering could have been avoided with honesty.

    I'm sorry that it's hard for you now in shidduchim. The only consolation I have for you is that in all the various hashkafic circles, you will find that available girls far outnumber boys. So there IS hope for your one day being able to find a good girl that you can relate to in this way.

  23. Anon for this oneJune 7, 2011 at 3:40 AM

    Anyone who has been to a Shabbos table and said some of the opinions of a Rabbi Slifkin or a Rabbi Bar Hayim (and even without attributing them to any name, just posing their ideas or logic alone), understands the derision with which independent thought is met by most of the haredi/Orthodox world. Even when I mention ideas that I learned from '' I am met with all kinds of lectures about "secular influence" etc etc... and the rabbi of hashkafacircle is haredi as can be, only exception being that he also happens to think independently. Maybe I should view it that that actually makes him non-haredi by definition? In any event, Isaac is right.

  24. You can use fairly simple but logical argument as follows:

    If you can conceive the idea of a Creat-r that can cause the universe to exist ex nihlo, the time scale is actually unimportant.


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