A Philosophical Retrospective
My second year in seminary I had a very difficult time applying myself to my learning. I was suffering from a severe perceptual shift that had literally rocked my foundations, and as generally happens in such cases I was lost and searching for something familiar to hold onto. This perceptual shift was entirely caused by my visit to Poland with a large group of other kids from seminaries and yeshivot around Israel. It was six days of ghettos, graveyards, concentration camps and old shuls. Not to mention Holocaust movies to fill in the long spaces when we were traveling from place to place by bus. There were a lot of devastating effects that resulted from this trip, but the loss of my faith in Gd was not one of them. At least not yet. The biggest one, at the time, was my loss of faith in the Orthodox community.
After six months of depression, restlessness, and unanswered questions, I tried to do what they always tell you to do: I went to speak to a rabbi. In this case, the rabbi was the head of my seminary. known to be a man of great Torah scholarship and many years experience in teaching young adults, i thought this man, the head of my ivory tower of Jewish wisdom and knowledge, would be able to guide me back to a place of confidence and faith. So I scheduled a private meeting with him. After all these years I can't remember exactly what I said. I'm sure that I was nervous and uncomfortable, bringing up something that was so huge to me on an emotional and spiritual level; I'm sure that I didn't express myself clearly, and that even if I did I may have been misunderstood. (English is not this man's first language.) But his response was clear enough. As soon as i indicated that my faith issues were connected in some way with the Holocaust, his face cleared as if he found the answer and was relieved.
"Well, clearly, you are arrogant," he said, as if this was some kind of revelation. "You think you know better than Gd how the world should be run." He would have gone on in that vein except that's where I gave up and started crying. The tears made him re-think his words a little and he tried to backtrack and kind of soften what he'd said but it was over from that moment. He hadn't heard me, he wasn't trying to hear me, he wasn't even aware of what I was talking about. He just wanted the problem solved and out of his office as quickly as possible. Suffice it to say, the problem was not solved.
I want to be clear about something. the reason I don't believe in god has nothing to do with the Holocaust or any of the other myriads of tragedies that have happened to mankind since he first walked the earth. Whether or not there is a god, evil exists and we have to deal with it somehow. But my perception of the Orthodox community as one that values questions, information, knowledge, and wisdom was basically destroyed in that office. I still believed in god for quite a few years after that interview. But from that moment I didn't want to belong to any facet of the Orthodox community. or at least not that facet (modern orthodoxy) which had been my great white hope after Chabbad and Bais yaakov.
I'm not the only one who's been shattered by experiences like these. And I know you can't assume that a religion or philosophy is exemplified by the people who claim to practice them. but I really do think that educators and mentors in the religious world need to be more aware of what their students are thinking and feeling. It isn't arrogance to want to understand loss and tragedy in a way that brings some meaning to existence. it isn't arrogant to ask questions, to admit you don't know things and that you want to know more. it isn't arrogance to ask a respected leader for guidance and comfort in a troubled time. It is arrogance to assume you know what a student is thinking without allowing them to finish their sentences. It is arrogant to assume that you can solve all their problems with one of the stock answers you heard from someone who never seriously questioned their own faith. And it is not only arrogant but selfish to dismiss the agony of the soul with a curt, formulaic lecture.
I am not angry at this rabbi. i think perhaps if someone explained to him exactly what I was thinking, in Hebrew, that he may have done a better job. But when these people look at me and judge me for not believing what they believe all I can think is: it's your own damn fault.