Atheists in closet: Rabbis who lost God
New study on rabbis in spiritual crisis reveals wives are almost always aware of situation, yet choose not to leave them. Why do they continue to work as rabbis? 'Most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood is their faith,' researcher explains
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.
Shrell-Fox, a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, got the idea for the study from two American researchers, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, who originally did research into clerics who are secretly atheists and how they rationalize their works.
"My premise was that there are clearly such rabbis as well," says Dr. Shrell-Fox. "Religious opinions are not something permanent and stable. They go through changes with age and over the years, and that's a fact.
"As this dynamic process cannot be foreseen by a person, the question is what happens when his person is a rabbi. A person who had rabbinical training and serves as a rabbi in his community, and finds out one day that he is no longer a believer. What then?"
When faith is also one's job
Only 11 people accepted Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox's call. "The fear of exposure was too big," he says, "and some of them simply did not feel comfortable enough to open up. Those who did were questioned and interviewed in order to receive a clearer picture about the personal coping in light of this problematic situation."
'Many of them are still there because they love community life, their friends and the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer.' Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox (Photo: Herbert Fox)
One of the American rabbis teaches Torah and Mishna in his community's Jewish school. Shrell-Fox says he has no problem with that.
"He loves the Jewish people and Jewish customs. What is mostly difficult for him is the need to pray with the students, or to wear a skullcap. He still has to dress in a certain way, and that's where the hardship lies."
One of the Orthodox rabbis in Israel retired gradually from his public community position after the crisis.
"He no longer serves as a rabbi as he did in the past," Shrell-Fox notes, "but he goes to synagogue and prays. He has an academic background as a linguist, and he says he uses the prayer time to look at the words linguistically. He says he always finds something new in every prayer, and basically this rabbi has taken his personal difficulty to the academic field, as a way of coping."
What leaves rabbis in the "atheistic closet" after all?
"Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a 'cultural emigration.' Moreover, and that's a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if just outwardly.
"The same rabbi who teaches in the school is afraid to take a step out, because he is economically dependent on the community. In a different economic climate it may have been different. An Israeli Orthodox rabbi, who teaches in a religious academic framework, may lose his job, and again, it's uncertain he will find an alternative.
"The rabbi affiliated with Religious Zionism said he sometimes feels like he is 'betraying himself,' but it stops there, more or less. He even noted in one of the conversations that when he reads books by the 'new atheists,' he actually finds himself convinced to be more religious.
"Expressions like 'God willing' and 'with God's help' have become such a natural part of his discourse, as a person who was born and raised with them, that he doesn't even feel the conflict in expressing them, although it's completely outwardly."
Another rabbi serving as a community rabbi, who belongs to the national-religious public as well, told Shrell-Fox that if people praying in his synagogue would listen carefully between the lines of his "biblical discourse" every Shabbat – they would understand that his worldview is far away from theirs.
'Most importantly, don't get caught'
But even before the public exposure in front of the community, which will sometimes never happen, the wife becomes the rabbi's only and most difficult "confession booth."
"Everyone I interviewed shared the new situation with their partner," says Shrell-Fox. "Possibly because they came from a more open stream? I have no answers about the circumstances, but that's the situation."
The study participants continued to run a religious home for all intents and purposes, including observing kashrut and Shabbat.
"Their approach was: I made a change, but my wife didn’t, so as far as I'm concerned she doesn't have to pay the price. Only one of the interviewees got divorced, and that wasn't on the backdrop of the crisis either – but regardless of it. The approach was mutual commitment, but in the positive sense of the word. There was also an approach of 'do everything but not in front of the children,' and most importantly – don't get caught."
Shrell-Fox assumes that "among national-haredim or haredim, it may have been completely different. There was a group of national-haredi rabbis in a spiritual crisis who I contacted. They meet among themselves, one of them told me, but there is a lot of secrecy. I assume it's hard to make this cultural shift as the environment is less liberal."
2 of rabbis happened to know each other
As a marriage and family counselor, he says that many times he sees couples arriving for therapy with apparent differences in their level of religiousness.
"I assume that some haredi and religious women who would ask for a divorce in such a case – and on the spot. When I treat haredi and religious couples, many times I see the woman pushing the man to pray in a quorum, when he says he has no problem praying at home. But she already thinks about the message it would convey to the kids.
"There are conflicts on this background, and it's not easy to deal with. So if we go to extremes, there is definitely an option that it could lead to a breakup, but at the end of the day that's a speculation."
Where do you see the main failure between faith and religious practice?
"In the fact that it has become a command. For our Sages of Blessed Memory, faith was intangible and amorphous. And then came Rabbi Saadia Gaon, followed by Maimonides, and worded the principles of the Jewish faith. This is a concept based on the principles of the Christian and Islamic faiths.
"And because of the 13 principles, distress is created many times, as most of them don't believe in them, but on the other hand, they keep expressing their love for tradition and the Jewish customs. On the other hand, they were raised in a halachic framework, and they don't see themselves in Reform communities. That's the distress the way I see it.
"The amusing and sad thing is that during the research I found out that two of the participating rabbis knew each other, and at the time none of them was aware of the other's distress. I would be happy to allow a larger group of people, both to talk to me personally and to conduct a safe environment allowing mutual sharing.
"The study of the clerics began from a small group too, and today we are talking about 150 active participants and hundreds of visits to their forums by unique users. I am very much in favor of creating such a virtual support group here too, because there is no doubt this phenomenon exists, and my goal is to ease the distress."
Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox can be contacted on this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Annual Conference on Judaism and Evolution was held in mid July at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem