A crisis of faith does not make you a bad Jew
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Was Mother Teresa of Calcutta an agnostic or even — heaven forefend — a full-blown atheist? It is a question which would have seemed absurd just a week ago. But that was before Time magazine unveiled her previously unpublished letters and diaries, in which she documented a 50-year-long crisis of faith.
“The damned of Hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God,” she wrote in one letter. “In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.”
In another, she said, “People think my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew…”
Well, now they do. And the understanding with which her bombshell has been received by the Catholic Church is remarkable. Indeed, her writings were first exposed by the very man promoting her sainthood, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk. Church officials insist that they were familiar with her writings before she was beatified in 2003, and they will in no way prevent her imminent sainthood.
How would Jewish leaders have reacted had similar secrets come to light about one of our rabbis? Many of our rabbinical leaders may well have tried to suppress, deny or re-interpret any such material, and certainly some would have banned its publication (as in 2002 with The Making of a Godol, a book with far tamer disclosures about modern sages reading Anna Karenina and writing love letters to their fiancées). I would also guess that many Orthodox Jews would feel betrayed by the admissions and be thrown into a crisis of faith of their own.
Christians are relatively open about issues of faith and doubt and have a long list of saints who have documented their spiritual struggles, including Mother Teresa’s namesake, St Therese of Lisieux, who described a “night of nothingness”. By comparison, this is an issue of which we, particularly in the Orthodox world, are still very much afraid.
In most Orthodox circles, it is taboo to admit that one is not sure that God exists or authored the Torah. Some schools let students ask a few “controversial” questions, but open discussion is rare in other settings. We also have very few examples of rabbis in spiritual distress. (There is the 19th-century Kotzker rebbe, who blew out his Shabbat candles, declaring “there is neither justice nor judge”. But since he then locked himself in a room for 19 years, it is unclear whether his breakdown was spiritual or mental.)
It is not that we Jews are more confident in our beliefs. Compared to Christians , rather, we are not particularly concerned with theology, which takes a back seat to issues of halachah, hashkafah (religious ideology) and textual study. This has become even more pronounced in the past few decades. Just as there has been a “shift to the right” halachically, there has been a “shift to the right” theologically; there is today much less tolerance across the Orthodox world for views that do not conform and so discussion is less relevant than ever.
It is unrealistic, however, to expect people to have blind faith. We live in a secular age in which we are encouraged to raise questions in every area. It is only human to entertain doubts about religion too.
Anyone who imagines that such questioning is not rife in the Orthodox world is wilfully blind. Just log on to popular weblogs such as the now-defunct Godol Hador, where such issues are discussed ad nauseam, to appreciate how common it is for adherents, even in the Charedi community, to have moments of doubt. They are thirsting for theological discussion but only feel comfortable engaging in mediums in which they can remain anonymous.
This is the tragedy. Voicing these questions openly would put them beyond the pale, so many of these people are convinced that they are apikorsim, not real Jews, not really Orthodox, and their religious identity is undermined as a result. But having entirely natural questions does not make one a heretic. It simply makes one normal.
Our challenge is to stop seeing theological questions as a threat and treat them as an opportunity to explore, engage with and ultimately deepen our religious beliefs and relationship with God. Living a religious life with blind faith is easy. It is potentially more meaningful and rewarding when one has to get to answers through hard work.
As Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz said of Mother Teresa this week: “These moments of crisis felt by great saints are normal… [her moments of] weakness [are in fact] the proof of the greatness of faith of Blessed Mother Teresa and take nothing away from her holiness.”
We could learn a thing or two.
Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC
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