A Charedi Jew’s Flirtation Heresy

As I have said so often in the past, Agudah spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran is one of the ‘good guys’. He is a brilliant writer and eloquent spokesman for his organization. Although I do on occasion disagree with him, sometimes strongly, there is not a doubt in my mind that he is a compassionate man whose ideals are expressed with intellectual honesty. That is reflected in an introspective Forward  article where he describes his once and momentary flirtation with heresy.

This is something everyone should read. When the chief spokesman for Agudah talks about his own battle with heresy, that is news.

He revealed that he was once a skeptic about the truth of Judaism. It was because of a book he read that questioned basic belief. True – it was at the very tender age of 12. But a 12 year old that reads intellectual books on matters of faith is quite a mature 12 year old.

Rabbi Shafran notes that it did not last very long and goes about reciting the reasons his beliefs were quickly restored. Reasons for believing in God and the truth of Judaism that are similar to my own.

But the fact that he discusses it at all tells me that he is an intellectually honest individual… someone that does not sacrifice truth for expediency or popularity. He is a thinker. He is not someone that took every word he was ever taught and refused to see anything else. He considered the validity of a book which – at the time – seemed like it put forward legitimate refutations of the Judaism in which he was raised. He did not deny his doubts. He instead confronted them.

Contrast that with what has in the past been the attitude of educators in the Yeshiva world. You could not — would not  dare ask the kind of questions raised in Rabbi Shafran’s mind. Not to mention be caught dead reading a book like that. Anything remotely questioning one’s faith would be met with stern warnings not to ask questions like that as they amounted to Kefira – heresy! Rabbi Shafran must have well known that even at age 12. So he kept those thoughts to himself. At age 12 he did not want to rock any boats. In the end he found all by himself – the answers that restored his faith .

That is as much a tribute to Rabbi Shafran’s parents as they are to him. His parents did not shelter him from exposure to the secular world. It was their awareness and tolerance of it that led him for a brief moment in time to doubt his Judaism. And it was that same tolerance and that allowed him to reach his own conclusions about Judaism. Which in my view is a much stronger basis for belief than unanswered questions of dogma that remain repressed in the deepest recesses of your mind. With niggling doubt just a hairbreadth below one’s consciousness.

Rabbi Shafran did to have to open himself up to the world like this. He could have avoided admitting that he once harbored doubts about his religion. But being the intellectually honest person that he is, he decided to reveal those doubts to the public in the widely read secular news medium, the Forward. Which can re-open challenges to Judaism that abound today.

It is this experience that accounts for his attitude towards those who have had similar questions and doubts about Judaism raised today by new challengers – and have found different answers than he has. It also made him non judgmental about coreligionists that have gone OTD, And compassion for those who left left Orthodoxy because of very negative personal  experiences that were mishandled by the Frum world they left. Here is how he puts it:

I would never presume to condemn anyone who has left the Orthodox way of life. Some who have fled their communities have rec and counted witnessing or experiencing harrowing abuse and, often, others’ denial of the crimes. Judaism requires us not to judge another until you have “reached his place” — that is to say, walked in his or her shoes. Outrages like those some have described would be powerful challenges to any sensitive soul. And so I feel no ill will toward the honest memoirists, only pain — both for their experiences and for what they are missing.

For those who tend to stereotype the right as intolerant of all those who do not walk in lockstep with their religious views, this article should disabuse you of that notion. This Charedi individual shows that they are not This is the mark a man who truly cares about his people… as are the people for whom he speaks.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.