There are some things that we do not discuss in public. We do not discuss our financial health nor our marital health. Within the Jewish community, we almost certainly never discuss our theological health. Sit in any kosher cafe and if you happen to overhear the conversations around you, you will discover everyone’s blood pressure, the last time they got checked for diabetes and their family history for mental illness but rarely, if ever, will you hear someone talk about their belief in God. Why is that?
It goes without saying that when we walk into a Jewish religious space, whether a synagogue or a school, we enter a space where belief in God is the norm. This understanding is so pervasive that if you find yourself wavering in that belief or unsure of where you stand, you can very much be on the periphery of the community. What does it say to the person experiencing doubt when every rabbinic sermon or every educational module is tailored around a solid assumption of belief?
Why should religious Jewish institutions take into consideration those who do not believe in God, experiencing doubt or unsure of where they stand? Would it not water down the experience for everyone else?
I assert that an awareness and sensitivity to those experiencing doubt is critical because everyone will experience doubt at some point in their lives. No one is immune from moments of angst or thoughts of apprehension. How powerful would it be indeed if the leaders of our community acknowledged their own times of struggle and validated the theological, emotional and intellectual experience of those in the room.
When I was still in rabbinical school, I attended a public gathering at a synagogue in Northern California that was eye opening. It was a community forum for people to discuss openly their financial struggles with their elected officials. People from a wide spectrum of socio-economic, racial and religious backgrounds were in attendance. Individuals working as hotel maids and janitors shared their daily difficulties. Yet, it was when the middle aged member of the synagogue dressed in a suit and tie stood up and shared his story of financial struggle punctuated with tears and sobs that the room felt like a different place. We are not accustomed to hearing people from middle class backgrounds opening up about their finances. When they do it can be transformative.
Likewise, there is a culture in Jewish religious life that does not make room for people to share when they are struggling with belief. In fact, there are segments in the Jewish community that engage in active heresy hunting to intimidate and suppress any acknowledgment of struggle. How does such an environment help people in their challenges? Does it bring people closer to Jewish community or push them further away?
I am a rabbi. I love Torah and mitzvot. I actively seek a relationship to God and engage in a regular prayer life and I have, at times, struggled with belief. I invite you to be open about your challenging times as well so we can cultivate a more welcoming and authentic community where people can bring their full selves when they walk into the spaces of communal life.