Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should I receive aliyot in shul if I have stopped believing in Torah min hashamayim?


QUESTION: I stopped believing in Torah min hashamayim [the Torah comes from heaven] many years ago, but have continued to receive aliyot in shul. But now I am beginning to wonder if I ought to decline the offers, as I don't believe the berachot that I'm saying.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Your question is a very sensible and honest one. Many people don't give all that much thought to the meaning of the blessings they recite. Your awareness of and sensitivity to the meaning of birchat haTorah should be commended.

At first glance it would appear that you should decline aliyot so as not to put yourself in the position of having to recite a blessing that you blatantly deny. This would be in keeping with the Talmud's (Ta'anit 8a ) reading of Psalm 78 verse 36: "They sought to beguile Him with their mouth, and they deceived Him with their tongues," which indicates that when speaking to God, an individual must always mean what they say and say what they mean.

However, it is not quite as straightforward as that. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 5, 13:6) dealt with a similar question to your own. He was asked if a non-believer should be permitted to recite any blessing to God given that he does not believe what he is saying. In an insightful and highly sensitive responsum, Rabbi Feinstein rules that a non- believer may indeed do so on the basis that he may regain his faith when he recites the blessing. The fact that he may not believe at present in no way precludes the possibility that he may have a change of heart in a split second. Moreover, he argues that the act of blessing God may in itself stimulate a feeling of connection with the Almighty.

Faith is not a simple matter; it ebbs and flows. There is no guarantee that a believer will always retain his faith or that a disbeliever will always remain with doubts. It is not uncommon for people to discover faith quite unexpectedly.

The worst thing a Jew can do is to accept the label of a non-believer. This term carries with it a certain permanency that negates the possibility of ever experiencing a renewal of faith. A much more accurate, not to mention helpful, term would be a Jew of lapsed faith. This indicates that while one finds faith elusive, it may only be temporarily so. Such a Jew refuses to concede defeat and in spite of his doubts, he holds open the possibility of rediscovering his faith.

Do not decline an offer to be called up to the Torah. Instead use the experience to try and connect with the Giver of the Torah.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

I think you may be giving yourself a hard time unnecessarily. To understand the significance of that doctrine, "‘the Torah comes from heaven", you need to appreciate the most important word in it, which is not "Torah", nor "heaven", but "from".

For some, that preposition means "direct from". This is often - but mistakenly - regarded as the official interpretation and implies that every word in the Torah is divine, having come straight from God - an awesome concept, but which also means that no part of the Torah can be criticised as misguided or time-bound.

However, "from" can also have the sense of "via the influence of". Thus the Torah is a marriage between heaven and earth, a mixture of God's revelation and human perception, with us having to distinguish between the eternal aspects that are to be kept, and the temporal elements that can be revised.

I suspect that when you say you no longer believe in Torah min hashamayim, you are referring to the first interpretation, whereas you might feel at home with the latter. Thus you may not approve of a mamzer being subject to a terrible penalty purely through the faults of others, but you do follow the Ten Commandments.
Moreover, the actual blessing you say when having an aliyah is very loose in its phrasing and talks of God who "gives us the Torah". It does not specify how this happens. This can be taken as meaning that God inspired various individuals, who then wrote down the truths that they felt had been communicated to them - but in their own words and from their own distillation of that moment. This is not to lessen their experience but to free us from the tyranny of literalism.

Equally significant is that you are obviously still a shul-goer and presumably attend because you find it worthwhile, be it out of tradition, or camaraderie or for the sake of family. It matters not, so long as you are being honest with yourself and still find some meaning in it. Hypocrisy is reprehensible, but uncertainty is no crime. What is more, your presence may help others who come with their hopes or sadness.

Luckily, you belong to a faith that values actions over thoughts. If you are unsure about theology, but support the community and persue an ethical life, you have every right to an aliyah.

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