The Orthodox atheist rabbi speaks out

November 24, 2016 22:56

The blogosphere has had its share of honest, sometimes too-honest, rabbis and rebbetzins writing about the challenges of their work, and more often than not carping about their congregants (fair enough, most congregants spend quite a lot of time carping about their rabbi). Mostly, they have elected to stay anonymous, aware that much of what they write could get them fired.

Well, we now have a new contender for the most revelatory rabbinic blog. The Orthoprax rabbi is billed as "The Musings of an Atheist Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation":

I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue.  I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids).  This is all pretty unremarkable.  But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not.  I don’t believe in any of it.  I am an atheist.  I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.  

How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple.  A rabbi is a job like any other.  No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client.  Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons.  Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in.  Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky.  Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons.  I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff.  My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise - so what’s wrong if I don’t believe.  My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance.  I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied.  So do my beliefs matter?

So, assuming this is all bona fide, a few points.

-- Strictly speaking, this is not an Orthoprax rabbi - ie someone who practises Orthodoxy although he does not really believe in it - because he says he doesn't really keep much of Jewish law. He is really just an atheist with an inappropriate day job.

-- Blogger Harry Maryles and many of his readers seem very shocked by this man's existence. I don't see why. Over the past few years, the blogosphere has clearly shown that the Orthodox world is packed full of people with less than perfect faith. Indeed, there seems to be a massive range of beliefs and compromises - from outright sceptics living fully observant lives to people steeped in doubt, right through to those leading double lives, sinning in private while maintaining a 'frum' cover, often for the sake of their children. The internet has shown many of these people to be highly educated Jews, capable of very serious discourse on God's existence and other philosophical issues, biblical criticism, historical analysis etc. Very often they remain fully committed to Jewish life. Why should they not be rabbis? (As one of Harry Maryles's commentators pointed out, there are certainly equivalent Christian clergymen; I am also told that there is a new series on BBC2, Rev, which portrays the life of one such vicar with doubts.)

-- Personally, I think this rabbi's beliefs do matter. I would have had no issue had he declared himself to be someone who struggles with faith, or someone who has had rare moments of faith, and lives his life trying to get back to those points. These seem very natural and normal statements which are surely true for many religious people (as I have written before, we have done ourselves a great disservice by making it almost taboo to admit any spiritual wobbles). Even if you are struggling with God, you are in a relationship with Him. But this rabbi is not saying that. He is a complete atheist, who does not believe in God, period. And yet, he is preaching God's word. He is reducing religion to a charade, which is frankly an insult to his congregants.

-- Just to be clear, I don't think that being an atheist precludes you from living a fully ritually observant and Jewish life. There are clearly many such people about, all with their own reasons for continuing to practise. I do think it precludes you from being an Orthodox rabbi.

-- Anyone who thinks that tending to the spiritual needs of others is a mechanical function equivalent to plumbing needs to switch jobs.

So, what do you think? How would you feel if you discovered your rabbi was an atheist? And is this a bigger or smaller problem than Orthodox women rabbis? (Ok, I was just being facetious with the last one.) I am particularly keen to hear from the small number of rabbis I know read this blog - anonymously, of course....

November 24, 2016 22:56

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