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.