I recently read a beautifully-worded plea for the right to doubt. The article, written by Elad Nehorai, also known as “Pop Chassid,” detailed the author’s terrifying journey into, and through, his own doubts.
[A] commitment to inner truth, the voice of God whispering within, is more important than anything. And when our religion becomes more important than truth, it means that our religion has become more important than God.
I look around now at Jewish publications wringing their hands over continuity. I look at parents whose priority is making sure their kids don’t leave the (their) derech. I look at others I know who have gone on my journey but have either chosen to dig deeper into their fears, or to leave altogether. I look at the rabbi my friend had spoken to, so convinced I was less committed to my religion, so unknowing about my commitment to God.
All of these people, in my opinion, have one thing in common: the terror. The denial of inner truth.
There are things that such people have in common: a defensiveness when their religious views are questioned by others, seeing people like me that openly struggle with our beliefs as a threat, an emotional insistence that there must only be one true derech in Judaism despite all evidence to the contrary… and much more.
(It is such people that even came up with an idea of “the derech,” as if a belief system as complex as Judaism could be so simplistic to have one path that we all follow.)
None of this has to do with the path a person has chosen. It invades the minds of Chabadniks just as much as Satmars, Modern Orthodox, Reform, and even nonbelievers.
What unites them isn’t their outward appearance or their conscious beliefs. It is their subconscious terror of losing their religion.”
He ends with this quote by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch
Do not think our time so dark and helpless, friend; it is only nervous and uncertain, as a woman in childbirth. But better the anxiety that prevails in the house of a woman about to give birth, than the freedom from anxiety, but also from hope and joy, in the house of the barren one.
Intellectual Questioning – To Face Your Fear
The process that Elad Nehorai is going through is hopefully familiar to many. As we get older and our minds develop, we begin to question the beliefs and practices that we so eagerly accepted as children. How do I know that the Torah is true?? Do I really have to do all this weird halachic stuff? Does God even exist? And if He does, does He really care whether or not I sort things on the Sabbath, put tefillin on in the morning, or say a blessing before I eat?
For most of us, these questions are terrifying. They are an attack on our entire worldview. Where will I go and who will I be if these things that I believed aren’t true for me anymore? Some people march boldly forward, and face their questions, despite this fear. Some shrink away and become more fanatical, judgmental and close-minded, creating a façade of confidence and certainty to avoid betraying their secret doubts.
You might think that the second group is ignorant, foolish, and small-minded. And indeed, in many ways, people who choose to ignore the pleas of their minds are. And yet I am not sure that Elad Nehorai’s approach is entirely warranted either. Elad claims that he needs to put “a commitment to inner truth above religion,” which sounds sensible enough. But I am afraid that this approach often leads individuals astray.
Intellectual “Faith” and Emotional Faith
Some of the things that we believe are intellectual. We can define intellectual faith as: Accepting as true something for which you have no proof. If you had proof, you would know. When you lack proof, but have strong evidence, you may still accept something as true. That acceptance of something as true, despite a lack of proof, is intellectual faith.
When it comes to religion, your intellectual faith consists of what you technically believe, like that Hashem revealed Himself on Sinai, that the Jews were chosen by God, that Moshe actually lived and prophesied. These are historical events, which either happened or did not. If you believe that they actually happened, that is part of your intellectual faith.
But not all faith is intellectual. And our attachment to our traditions and religion is not solely based on our belief in the veracity of the religion’s historical claims. So let us posit another kind of faith— “emotional” faith (or maybe “experiential faith”?). We can define this as our experience of Judaism as meaningful to us, our feelings that we have some relationship with God and with the Jewish community, memories of performing mitzvoth in a way that resonated with a deep part of us.
So for me, (and I think for many observant Jews) a foundation of emotional faith is the observance of Shabbos. Whether or not God gave over the Torah on Sinai, or the Jews ever lived in Egypt, or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ever lived as real people, Shabbos is important to me. You could tell me all those things were not true, but I would still stubbornly cling to this profoundly meaningful experience. This is so deep in me, so critical to my existence, that it does not need intellectual justification. And during my own periods of serious intellectual questioning, I was sometimes mystified by the strange paradox that Shabbos presented. As my mind, in all its cold ferocity, stormed me with unanswerable questions, a feeble inner voice would respond: “But what about shabbos?” “What about Yom Kippur?” What about the most meaningful moments of my life that have only been accessed through these penetrating practices and traditions?
This is a faith that is not based in intellectual belief. This is a faith that is based on our own inner resonance with the practices and beliefs of our tradition.
When people question their faith, it can be either type of faith that they are questioning. People who have no emotional faith—and are individualistic enough not to care about leaving their communities—will probably just leave. If they went to the trouble of establishing intellectual faith, they might be motivated to stay. But most people are not that committed to their minds. And usually people go through the process of establishing intellectual belief only in order to justify their emotional faith! So if there’s no emotional faith, there’s not a lot to go on.
People like Elad Nehorai, though, are dealing with intellectual questions. Somehow, his emotional faith is enough intact that he wants to defend it. He’s just having issues with some of the technical details.
What Takes Precedence? Mind or Heart?
How does Nehorai go about his questioning? For the sake of honoring his mind, he believes he must be prepared to dismiss his heart. If you read what he wrote carefully, he doesn’t say that exactly. What he says is that he has to be prepared to place inner truth, or “the voice of God whispering within” above religion. That he must be prepared to “go off the derech”—ie, give up his entire attachment to Judaism, for the sake of being honest with himself. But in light of what I just described as our emotional faith, I think that the preparedness to leave the religion, for many people, is equivalent to placing mind before heart.
For a moment, let’s look at people who do the opposite of this—people who put their hearts totally and completely before their minds. When we defend religion rigidly and deny our inner questions, we sacrifice the integrity of our intellectual faith for the sake of preserving our emotional faith. I keep some kind of connection to my belief in God, but my brain is shot through with cognitive dissonance and I am terrified of everything that threatens my beliefs. What motivates me is not entirely wrong, because my emotional faith is extremely valuable and if I question it too much, I can lose it. But I will pay a price for my lack of inner probing. We all know deep down when we are lying to ourselves, and that self-deception takes a toll. On top of that, my intellectual beliefs will remain rigid and simplistic. I will cap my ability to understand my own religion and traditions, because I have locked myself in at a child’s level.
But does that mean that I have to be willing to put my entire faith on the line for the sake of getting history straight? And if I do put my faith on the line, what I am really doing?
For observant people, our emotional faith is often rooted in our religious experiences. When we are willing to just throw away the attachment to God that we experienced as children through our tradition and practice, we betray something deep in ourselves. If I were to say—well maybe Shabbos isn’t a real religious thing. Maybe Yom Kippur is just the fabrication of the bible authors and a real relationship with God doesn’t involve those things—I am actually turning my back on myself. I am turning my back on the entire relationship that I have built up with God until this point. To say that I am willing to “go off the derech” is to say that what I have felt and experienced and believed may count for nothing.
Now, it may be that this “willingness to go off the derech” is a step in the process toward ultimate self-harmony. It may be that Nehorai—and others who take this path—will see the powerful tension between what we know and what we experience, and decide that they must find a way to honor both. However, many people who choose, as Nehorai has, to pursue their intellectual search with uncapped vigor, quickly lose their faith in the process. They surrender themselves to rationalism, finding, as they are likely to, that it is very difficult to have a flawless intellectual basis for religious belief.
Our relationship with God as we know it is not just about what we think, know, or understand. If we are so open that we are willing to give up that relationship, which is deeply rooted in our religious practice, because we think that our intellectual search is more important, it can constitute a real betrayal of God and of ourselves. For many, this “open-mindedness”, though well-intended, leads to a total loss of faith.
Elad says that he is putting God before religion, but from my experience, he is mistaken. He is putting reason before relationship, which can destroy the very relationship that he is trying to defend.