Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On The Orthoprax Rabbi

Last night Isaac referred me to The Orthoprax Rabbi, a blog claiming to be the words of a non-believing, publicly-observing rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue, and asked me for comment.

To be blunt: That situation is my worst rabbinic nightmare. In my first year in the rabbinate, I nearly left the field out of concern that The Orthoprax Rabbi might someday be me.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

It began with a normal, healthy maturing process:

As a child, I - like many children - always took it for granted that there were experts who ran the show, making everything work as it should. From painters to plumbers to publishers to actors, the people who designed and produced my world seemed to possess perfect knowledge and tools, since everything around me looked as (I assumed) it should. Even as a teenager, I continued to maintain that assumption, for the most part. Doctors, judges, political leaders, rabbis, all of them most know what they’re doing.

Then my first name changed to Rabbi, and I began to learn the truth that all of us must learn as we mature: That many of the people given titles and respect are just like everyone else, muddling their way through. When people began to call me a talmid chacham and look to me for advice and decisions, I got scared. Is this what the world is like? Are people like me (as in, imperfect people with imperfect knowledge and tools,) the ones running business, government, Judaism?

That revelation led me to seriously reflect on the fallibility of many of Judaism's architects, and on the less-credible aspects of Judaism and Torah, and on the great masses of people who thought Jews were living an illusion, and on the somewhat smaller number of people who were relying on fallible me as I had once relied on fallible others.

And that led me to want out.

I wanted to have the freedom to work out these issues without having a responsibility to a community, without concern that my ultimate decisions would damage my shul.

I wanted to know that fear of harming a community, or hunger for a paycheck, wouldn’t force me to live a hypocritical life, pretending one thing to the world and living another in my heart.

In essence, I wanted to avoid becoming what The Orthoprax Rabbi seems to have become.

I didn’t exit the rabbinate. And I didn’t become The Orthoprax Rabbi, either. Instead, I spent years thinking through my doubts and concerns, resolved the great majority of the big ones and left a couple as standing questions, and continued onward with an awareness that I have yet to reach my ‘final’ understandings, and that I will likely spend my entire life oscillating between poles of conviction.

I feel bad for The Orthoprax Rabbi, who seems to have gone further in his certainty than I ever did. Such certainty is stultifying.

I also feel bad for The Orthoprax Rabbi because I believe he experiences great internal pain in living this split identity. Despite his insistence that there is no inconsistency in being an unbelieving rabbi, the fact that he must conceal his disbelief is proof otherwise. And I am convinced that psychologically healthy human beings naturally wish to live a unified life, sincere and honest, and are pained by concealing their souls.

Definitely my worst rabbinic nightmare.

Does that answer your question, Isaac?


  1. I came to that realization about life in general when I realized in HS that the "big brains" running the country were much the same as a number of my smarter classmates(MTA '69 - some really smart guys)-it was frightening!

    I'm not sure I agree with your dissonance issue-many folks "put on their mask" when they go to work, realizing that all the worlds a stage and sometimes you have to play a role to make a living.

    To an extent I worry just as much about Rabbis who really think they are HKB"H's appointed messenger here to save others' souls but are too busy to look deeply into their own.

    BTW-could one rely on orthoprax rabbi's psak?

    Joel Rich

  2. Wow. That took guts. Thanks for the soul-bearing and sharing. Very helpful and meaningful.

  3. Woops. Soul-baring, not *bearing. Sorry!

  4. Interesting. I don't remember ever feeling that the authorities around me knew exactly what they were doing, or were qualified to do it. Probably why my teachers all thought I was a pain in the patootie.

    My journey has been the opposite of yours - moving slowly toward trusting some other people and ideas and structures, despite the fallible nature of their leaders and originators. Luckily I don't have a public position of authority about any of this. That would be very hard.

  5. Wow. I thought that this might touch a nerve, given what you wrote here:

    Thanks very much for giving us all the benefit of your years of hard internal work.

  6. Posts like this are part of why I am proud to call you a friend. I appreciate the raw emotion and honesty.

  7. Joel-
    I worry about those who are so certain, as well. But I think a rabbi's dissonance matters as well, because if he has reached the point of declaring himself a non-believer, he should not be in a role of building others' belief.

    Thanks, but I'm not sure I see why this was particularly gutsy. Certainly, greater rabbis than Torczyner have acknowledged their own growth process; I think of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and his discussion of Amalek, for example.

    I could have predicted that you would say that...

    Thanks for pointing me in that direction.

    Thanks; I assume the other part is Batman...

  8. well, shoot, now I'm getting predictable?!? ;)