There’s been some discussion in the blogosphere of a story in Mishpacha about the Charedi Avrech who keeps everything yet doesn’t believe in God. Harry’s Place has picked it up, with the usual debates about proof of God, Orthodoxy &c. Instead of addressing issues of “proof” (something which I touch on elsewhere), I want to discuss the underlying cause of all these crises: religious adolescence.
This is something that has been addressed in a number of articles I’ve seen over the years, and it describes essentially three stages of faith development. We’ll start with the first two, which most people go through:
1) Childlike Innocence and Acceptance: Believing because you were told to believe, or because that’s what everyone around you believes.
2) Religious Adolescence: Crises of faith and identity, doubting of assumptions – either because of internal questions or contradictions, or because of outside information.
Here things branch off, because the religious adolescent has a number of active choices they can make (these are all “ideal types”, most people are a mix of two or more).
1) He can become wholly analytical and skeptical and chuck the whole thing. This requires losing a lot of social and familial credit (and the further right one gets, the more credit is lost).
2) He can still be a skeptic (or an unbeliever) but stay within the community because of social and familial obligations.
3) He can develop a new, less naïve yet far more sturdy formulation of his faith and reasons for God worship and keeping Torah and Mitzvot. (Hint: I prefer this one)
4) He may stay, yet keep Torah and Mitzvot for non-theological reasons (e.g. this is what a Jew does, maintaining Jewish identity &c)
Crises of Faith – Cataclysm or Catalyst?
Many O Jews tend to view this faith stage as a bad thing, something which needs to be “healed” and brought back to its “pristine” child-like state. The most extreme example of this is of course the Charedi educational system, where questions are not even allowed. Personally, I was shocked when I learned that the teachers themselves did not believe there were any answers to these questions. It’s like a sales representative who doesn’t really believe his own product.
I can certainly understand the appeal of wanting to “push the genie” back into the bottle. Childlike faith is certainly more secure than mature faith, at least in appearance. There is no struggle with doubt, no uncertainty, no hardship. Willingly living in a bubble and being fearful of the outside world of doubt is ostensibly a small price to pay for such security. Rav Kook pere once spoke sadly of how small the world was of Old Yishuv type Jews who hide and cower to maintain their innocence. Their response would be – it is worth it for God.
I’ll be honest – I used to share this view. To me, faith was like a mirror or plate – you can fix it if it was broken, but you can still see the cracks. I remember seeing a frum skeptic blogger making much the same point, wishing he could go back to those innocent care-free days.
Today, I think the exact opposite. Sure, I don’t believe in forcing people to go through religious adolescence; those who wish to retain childlike faith are free to do so. However, I don’t think it’s the purely negative stage people think it is. There is much to be gained in this stage, and I believe one can come out a much stronger, stable religious person. The pure innocence might be lost, but the connection with God can paradoxically become stronger, since both know exactly what the relationship entails.
Furthermore, a religiously mature person is a confident person. He or she stands tall in confronting issues and teaching others. Far from cowering in fear from every possible challenge, he can live in the world and truly take in all of His creation and work and use it in His name. Yes, there are risks that the religious adolescent will leave the faith, but there is also the potential that he will grow by leaps and bounds. It is not a negative-sum game. It is just as possible to rise to great heights in this faith stage.
How does one go about this? More on that in the next post.