A Hasidic Atheist?!

Generation X. You gotta love ’em. That’s my son’s generation. He grew up in a Haredi and Hasidic home with an overbearing step-father; and now he is an agnostic, in search of his own spiritual identity. Like Jacob, Moshe struggles with God. I am proud of the fact that he refuses the pat answers of religious zealots.

This takes us to the next part of our story . . . a man, who calls himself Pen Tivokeish–a rather ingenious and clever name. After being brainwashed by the Haredim, he is now very ambivalent about God. Who could blame him? Pen also happens to be a God-wrestler, just like my son.

Here is how his story began. While attending the Discovery Seminar at Aish HaTorah, Pen felt reasonably confident that the critical arguments justifying the belief in an historical Exodus, as well as the arguments refuting evolution and Genesis were unassailable. Or were they? Pen decided to refine his arguments on his own, and discovered that the answers he had ingested were no longer adequate. The more he investigated the issues on the Internet, the more the old Aish arguments began to unravel–along with his faith.

In the end, Pen decided to do what other Generation X-ers do–start a blog as a soliloquy for expressing their deepest spiritual yearnings.  By the way, he has a blog called Penned-In – a pun on both his own sense of confinement and his writing – has proved an outlet for “stuff I probably can’t say in any other settings”, he explained . . . .

Good idea, the spirit of Maimonides must be smiling on Pen Tevakashe.

Freud’s insights in the psychology of fundamentalists is especially poignant here. Freud writes in his Future of an Illusion, that any time people feel a compulsion to justify their faith by resorting to rational proofs, it is because they harbor an unconscious cynicism and really, deep down in their heart of hearts, do not believe in the theological rhetoric they have been forced-fed. Freud obviously describes what young people like Pen and Moshe have struggled with through much of their lives.

“Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all.

In former days anything so presumptuous was visited with the severest penalties, and even to-day society looks askance at any attempt to raise the question again. This third point is bound to rouse out strongest suspicions. After all, a prohibition like this can only be for one reason–that society is very well aware of the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines. Otherwise it would certainly be very ready to put the necessary data at the disposal of anyone who wanted to arrive at conviction. This being so, it is with a feeling of mistrust which it is hard to allay that we pass on to an examination of the other two grounds of proof. We ought to believe because our forefathers believed.

But these ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we are. They believed in things we could not possibly accept to-day; and the possibility occurs to us that the doctrines of religion may belong to that class too. The proofs they have left us are set down in writings which themselves bear every mark of untrustworthiness. They are full of contradictions, revisions and falsifications, and where they speak of factual confirmations they are themselves unconfirmed . . .” [1]

Spinoza expressed similar complaints in his Theological-Political Treatise (c. 7).

Personally, I encourage my students to wrestle with faith; in the end, faith may be understood in rational terms, but it must be personally authenticated for it to become something real and meaningful. That is obviously the existentialist in me speaking, but I sincerely encourage my son Moshe and also  Pen Tivokeish to continue exploring the great questions that challenge us to expand our consciousness in this world.

Questioning is a good thing, and true believers need to embrace a little bit of skepticism in their thought processes. Maimonides was the first Jewish philosopher to view theological agnosticism as a good thing, for in the end, before we can define what we do believe in, we must first define what we don’t believe in. Faith is a process . . . .

For a starter, I think the best way to discover God is not through apologetics, or scholastic theology, but through the ethics of Levinas and Buber–both of whom, teach the theology of ethics. This is important point, for if the presence of the Creation intimates anything, it hints that God is a relational Being.

More to follow . . .



[1] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, Peter Gay, The Future of an Illusion (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 33.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *