By: Yitzchak Fried  | 

The Atheist in the Closet

Jewish parents want their kids to be like them. This is understandable: most parents do. In Judaism, however, the expectation that children assume their parents’ values and lifestyle takes on a special urgency. It is no accident that the Torah personifies the relationship between God and Israel as that of a parent and child: “Will you disobey God? Oh foolish and unwise nation! He is your father…”(Deuteronomy 32). Judaism can conceive of no more authoritative source of demands on one’s personal behavior than allegiance to one’s parents. And in a nation with a strong historical memory, the line of parents reaches far back into time: Jewish parents impress upon their children the same demands that their parents made upon them. Twenty-first-century America is no Russian village, but we can still hear the fiddler’s tones and the adamant cry of “Tradition!”

But, Judaism is more than a religion of tradition. It is a religion of ideas. Despite efforts to characterize it to the contrary, its truth has always been its foundational principle and the underlying source of its ethical demands. It was the quest for truth that motivated the Jewish philosophers of the middle-ages, the legal interpreters of the Second Temple era and the prophets before them. And truth, unlike tradition, is a profoundly individualistic project. To know what is true is an epistemological journey. It involves thinking, not belonging. Judaism’s plea for continuity, its emphasis on community and filial loyalty, is thus tempered by its correlate command to value what is true.

There is perhaps no more striking example of the individualized and ideational nature of Judaism than a responsum from the thirteenth century Talmudist, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba). Like many mediaeval Jewish philosophers, Rashba was frank on the matter of faith. When asked to explain the fundamentals of Jewish belief contained in the paragraph of the shema, he responded: “[We] were commanded to listen (to theological teachings) and to study them, for if we do not hear and study them we will never come to contemplate them. And after we listen to, study and analyze them well to see whether there is any contradictory proof, Heaven forbid, and after our studies lead us to true analysis, our analysis will bring us and compel us…to accept and believe that God exists, and that he oversees our actions” (Vol. 5, Res. 55).

For Rashba, commitment to Judaism is the outcome of a personal, rational judgement: a rational judgement that means considering the possibility – “Heaven forbid” – that Judaism is false. As his words show, he was deeply convinced that an individual’s honest assessment would validate the fundamentals of Jewish faith. But as is the case with all thinking, a personal assessment is, well, personal. One is blessed when this personal assessment runs the way the Rashba hoped. In that case, one’s inner world of thought corresponds with the demands of family, community and history.  But when this meditation doesn’t run the way Rashba anticipated – when the value of truth leads an individual to negate Judaism’s fundamental beliefs – then a person has a serious problem. The two most important values of his or her upbringing -- commitment to truth and commitment to tradition -- collide.

To Orthodox society, such a person presents a conundrum. This is not the familiar problem of how to deal with the apathetic or rebellious child, the question of how to draw those distant back into the fold. It is not the question of what resources should be made available to a young (or old) Jew who has doubts. This is the question of how Orthodox parents should deal with their sons and daughters – responsible, thoughtful, conscientious people – who turn to them one day and say, “I don’t believe.” What I’ve come to learn is that the number of people who fit this category is surprisingly large.

A good friend of mine, Yosef, came out as an atheist this year. Since “coming out”, he has connected with many other non-believers; it was through him that I first learned of the sheer number of them, both on campus and in the wider Orthodox world. The religious YU community, including yeshiva boys who spend their mornings studying Talmud and who share divrei torah at Friday night Shabbos meals, turns out to harbor many closet atheists. As one might imagine, living as an atheist under these circumstances is miserable. There are scant places in YC where an atheist can feel comfortable openly discussing his beliefs. To do so risks ostracization, especially for those whose primary peer group was formed in a yeshiva. Yosef spent years quietly closeted. And, as he’s learned, so have many others.

It’s interesting to speculate what these nonbelievers have in common. As far as I can tell, it’s not much. Each person I meet who confides that they are an atheist has a different story: a different family, a different educational and religious background. Some were very devoted, even “intense”, while still religious. As one friend, who I share with Yosef, joked: “I was the annoying religious type.” To take a different example, Jack (not his real name; all names in this article have been changed), grew up in Brooklyn, spent time in the Mir, and attended an ultra-orthodox yeshiva in the Haredi city of Betar Illit. Others come from mainstream, modern orthodox circles. Akiva and Chaim are both graduates of Yeshivat Sha’alvim. Baruch is a Gush alum. Then there’s Ike, a soon-to-be law school graduate who spent two years in Kerem B’Yavneh. Nearly all -- with the exception of Jack, who has since transferred to UPenn and stopped wearing a yarmulke -- describe themselves as “closet atheists”.

Each has their own story of coming to non-belief. Yosef’s doubt grew out of an argument with his chavrusa over the basis of rabbinic exegesis. Some claim that they never “really believed” but that they “wanted to”. They hoped that dis-belief was something you grew out of -- like acne or a bad habit -- and that, at any rate, yeshivot or seminaries would certainly quell their doubts. But when the anticipated belief failed to materialize, they realized that they were in trouble.

A friend of mine, who’s an atheist, agreed to review an earlier draft of this essay. She e-mailed me that I’d neglected to discuss the pain that comes with losing belief. Becoming an atheist, she said, “wasn't some callous combination of cynicism and arrogance, but a…process of realizing that you don't believe in everything you held sacred in the world. Of desperately wanting to be wrong and grasping at straws to hold onto faith…” For those like her, the path to atheism is painful, protracted and unexpected. Mark, too, falls into this category and was willing to share some of his memories: “My friend called me – he was having a crisis of belief. I prided myself on being a thoughtful person, on not shying away from difficult questions and having faith in [the possibility of] honest answers. He thought I could set him straight. He was wrong. We talked for hours. He pointed out my own assumptions…When I hung up the phone, I was scared.” In the confusion that followed, Mark looked desperately for closure. “It was like finding the ground pulled out from under me. I cried a lot. I couldn’t see how I would ever get back my belief, but I felt I had to try. I spoke to two of my rebbeim, both of whom I respected a great deal. I remember the first time I sat down to speak with one of them...I was shaking. My rebbe asked me ‘Are you cold?’ and I told him, no, I just can’t stop shaking.” Mark spent extra years in yeshiva in the hope that he would recover his faith. By the time he entered YU, he was an atheist.

Regardless of how one comes to atheism, the subsequent isolation is painful. Many of Yosef’s friends speak frankly of depression, of feeling rootless, of their sense that they are hidden pariahs. They struggle with relationships with their parents and family. Some have told their parents of their beliefs. Some haven’t.

If you’ve been watching the winds, the rise of closet atheism in the Orthodox world is not news. Jay Lefkowitz’s 2014 article in Commentary magazine flagged the existence of “Social Orthodoxy”, a sector of the Jewish community that comfortably identifies (as least amongst themselves) as atheists or agnostics. This group, however, is deeply committed to a (at least partially) halachic lifestyle. As Lefkowitz explains: “Social Orthodox Jews fully embrace Jewish culture and Jewish community. And they are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, that is their raison d’être. Furthermore, because religious practice is an essential component of Jewish continuity, Social Orthodox Jews are observant—and not because they are trembling before God…And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”

Lefkowitz is comfortable acknowledging his own non-belief while still identifying strongly with Orthodox practice. This differentiates him from the people I’ve described above. This group doesn’t find Lefkowitz’s solution to the belief/community conflict appealing.  For some of them, commitment to Judaism was always more rooted in Judaism’s theology – its account of human existence and its mandate to the individual -- than in its group identity. After the intensity of a religious experience invested with cosmic significance, Lefkowitz’s view of Judaism seems disappointing. Others find Lefkowitz’s position to be inevitably compromising, given that Orthodox Judaism comes with normative beliefs about women, homosexuals, and non-Jews that, even through the most liberal of lenses, differ from those of the avowedly secular. Theirs is the rationale (although not the conclusion) of Joshua Fattal, in his article for Tablet, “The Problem With Social Orthodoxy”. Fattal cringed at the contradiction within Social Orthodoxy between belief and practice – ultimately a contradiction between communal values and private conscience. But while Fattal argues that Orthodoxy should evolve to reflect modern Jews’ beliefs, the atheists I know respect the integrity of Orthodox Judaism too much to accommodate such tampering. They are ironically “frum” atheists.

Their attitude reminds me of an 1886 address from rabbi and Assyriologist Morris Jastrow Jr., son of Marcus Jastrow of Jastrow dictionary. Jastrow Jr. wrote “Jews and Judaism” the week that he stepped down from the position of synagogue Lecturer, an antiquated post roughly equal in importance to community rabbi. A short article in the New York Times summarized his decision: “A man could be a Jew but not necessarily believe in the doctrine of Judaism, which demanded a belief in the divinity of the Ten Commandments, the divine authorship of the Scriptures and that Judaism had a special mission among the nations. To this [Jastrow] could not subscribe, and refused to maintain a position demanding adherence to such doctrines. Judaism was a religion of dogmas, and as such he could not accept it.” The drama of his decision was intense: Jastrow Jr. was only twenty five at the time, and the community rabbi was none other than his own father.  

Jastrow Jr. also felt that Judaism could not be compromised because of Jews’ changing beliefs and values. You either accepted the fundamentals of the religion, or you didn’t. And the worldviews associated with each stance were, at some point, incompatible. In his words: “In the collection of legends and tales known as the Midrash, there is a story told to illustrate the particular hospitality of…Sodom. It is said that they had a room, containing a bed of a certain size, which they placed at the disposal of strangers. If the bed was too short, they cut off the stranger’s legs until he could accommodate himself to it; if it was too long they stretched his limbs. It is much the same way Judaism is treated today. We stretch it or shorten it to suit our convenience; we fashion it according to our views. Now, I do not believe we are obliged to fashion our views according to it, but we are certainly not justified in compounding any mixture we please and labeling it Judaism” (“Jews and Judaism”, 9). For Jastrow, like the NYT article reported, Judaism “was a religion of dogmas”. And his respect for those dogmas precluded the attitudes of either Lefkowitz or Fattal.

Orthodox Jews who hold belief central to the integrity of Orthodoxy will find Jastrow’s attitude refreshing. Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Open Orthodoxy is probably the latest attempt to adapt Judaism, as much as possible, to modern thinking and values. But the consequences of following Fattal’s approach have been dire: the RCA has declared the movement beyond the pale of Orthodox life. The title of a 2015 article in The Jewish Press, “Saying Kaddish for Open Orthodoxy”, seems to reflect the general sentiment of the Orthodox world. In some respects, then, atheists give traditional Orthodoxy something to be grateful for. They both hold beliefs to be foundational to Judaism and respect the integrity of those beliefs. That is precisely why they cannot reconcile themselves with it.

The question is: How should Orthodoxy respond to these people? In some respects, it is silly to speak of a communal response to atheists. Each person who defects from his or her Judaism faces unique parents, siblings and friends; settling each of those concrete relationships is a deeply personal affair. However, there is one aspect of this painful process that is communal and which begs our attention. This is the taboo within Orthodox society against atheism. Obviously, Orthodox Jews are stridently not atheists. I mean something else: that for many Jews, atheism is perceived as the worst form of moral degradation and intellectual dishonesty. I believe that this attitude is actually a part of contemporary religious education. Like the tzduki or Roman of Talmudic tales, the atheist or maskil is the archetypal, arrogant antagonist. The Orthodox attitude toward someone with the hubris to be an open atheist takes a leaf from the Haggada: “For since he removes himself from the community, he denies the (faith’s) fundamentals. And you - blunt his teeth!” But there is nothing about atheism, per se, that makes one immoral or intellectually dishonest. The atheists that I know are neither. This is not the place to discuss morality without God or why some intellects find atheism more reasonable than theism. But it is a place to hold up this taboo for our collective scrutiny.

Orthodox Jews who believe in practice motivated by belief cannot fail to realize that observance, too, is an act of agency. The decision to serve rests not in the force of tradition, but in decisions and beliefs constructed in the inner sanctum of one’s mind. Orthodox tradition admires those willing to suffer for their beliefs -- think of Daniel in the lion’s den, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria thrown in a fiery furnace. I hope I don’t offend people by using heroes of faith to evoke sympathy for atheists. But closet atheists face a similar choice between integrity and conformity.

It’s interesting that Orthodoxy shares many of its fundamental values with the people it most demonizes. Morality, truth and existential meaning are just as important to atheists as to theists. They are the values that drive the atheists I have been describing. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 31% of American atheists “feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly”; 35% “often think about the meaning and purpose of life” and over half (54%) “frequently feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe”. These people are not religious. But as one rabbi I know put it, these are “religious feelings”.

Obviously, Orthodoxy relies on more specific claims than “sensing wonder in the universe” or “thinking about the meaning and purpose of life”. Orthodoxy is based on particular historical events – God’s covenant with our forefathers, the Exodus, and the divine revelation at Sinai. Atheists deny these historical claims; their universe lacks the warmth of a divine relationship. But they don’t deny the underlying values that Orthodox Jews hold dear. I was sitting with Yosef and a group of friends when someone asked: “Who here is a proud Jew?” Nearly all responded with a loud “Sure.” These people value their Judaism, admire their people’s history and speak fondly of much of religious life. They just don’t believe Judaism is true.

The “anti-atheist” taboo serves a purpose. For Orthodoxy, Judaism is not a reasonable possibility – it is a communal reality. And taboos play an important role in demarcating the boundaries of possibility. If you want to ensure your children’s faith, it’s useful to establish strong walls between “us” and “them”. Maybe such walls are necessary. If atheists must suffer for their nonbelief, if they must choose between living a lie and living stigmatized, so be it. Perhaps this essay is a misguided, foolish attempt to call attention to something better left unspoken; if that is the consensus, I bow out. But if Orthodoxy insists on treating atheism as something monstrous and degenerate, how does it reckon with the human cost? Or is that question, too, best swept under the rug?