Atheist rabbis ‘in the closet’

Dr. Paul Shrell Fox examines the permanency of religious opinion.

secular/religious Jew 521 (photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)
secular/religious Jew 521
(photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)

Avraham (not his real name) is an Orthodox rabbi living in the center of the country.

He is married with five children, and has a comfortable job as a rabbi/educator at a local religious school where he teaches fifth and sixth graders. There’s only one problem: Avraham no longer believes in God.
But this newly atheist rabbi can’t come out of the closet, so to speak, because by doing so he would potentially risk losing everything – both his family and his job. To appropriate the Alvy Singer line from the movie Annie Hall, Avraham keeps his true identity secret “because he needs the eggs.”
Avraham’s story is one of seven documented in an absorbing new study by Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist, researcher and lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Shrell-Fox, who immigrated to Israel nearly 20 years ago, became interested in the topic of how religious practice and beliefs evolve over time. With funding from the Texas- based Binah Yitzrit Foundation, Shrell-Fox decided to pose the “big question,” starting first with Judaism’s leaders.
Shrell-Fox posted to two Internet lists of rabbis and received 15 responses, which were edited down to seven for the initial study – four in Israel and three in the US – all English speakers. Since the initial publication of the results, another 15 rabbis have contacted Shrell- Fox, wanting to participate in a follow-up study. The researcher presented his findings in Israel this summer at the Schechter Institute’s annual Conference on Judaism and Evolution; the full report is expected to be published early next year.
“The premise behind the study was that religious opinions are not something permanent; they go through changes with age that cannot be foreseen by a person in advance,” Shrell-Fox explains. “But what happens when that person is someone who serves as a rabbi in his community or has a job in which being a rabbi is important, and he finds out one day that he is no longer a believer?” Of the seven rabbis interviewed, four of them, says Shrell-Fox, “feel trapped in their jobs,” forced by circumstance to continue at work despite their hidden views.
In all seven cases, the rabbis’ wives were in on their husbands’ existential tussles and were emotionally supportive; as long as the house continued to function under a religious regimen, meaning keeping Shabbat and the holidays and keeping kosher. One rabbi put it this way: “My wife got into the relationship when I was religious; she shouldn’t have to pay the price.”
Despite their new views, none of the rabbis want to separate themselves from the community. “They love community life, their friends and the kiddush after Shabbat morning services,” Shrell-Fox points out.
Most are also older – 40 to 50 years old – and professionally established. It’s hard to start a personal “cultural evolution,” as Shrell-Fox puts it, at that age.
What led to these rabbis becoming atheists? Shrell-Fox says it’s different for each, but for two of the study participants, it was coming in contact with Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which presents religion “as a natural evolution that comes from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Shrell-Fox explains. “Before reading the book, religion was a very emotional thing for them. Afterward, they took a more intellectual understanding.”
Shrell-Fox is under no illusions that any broad conclusions can be drawn from his research so far. But he hopes that by raising the issue, rabbis in theological transition can find each other and talk about the changes they’re going through. His research was inspired in part by a study conducted with Christian clergy who had lost their faith but continued working in their fields, and how they rationalized that decision.
That study took place in 2008 and, since then, a confidential online forum was created by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science to support the Christian group. Some 1,500 clergy participate.
A similar website is now being set up for the rabbis to create a sense of community, “so that people will know they’re not alone.”
Shrell-Fox’s research has already done that. “Two of the rabbis in the study actually knew each other. They had gone to rabbinical school together and kept in contact, but weren’t aware of the other’s distress,” he reveals.
The planned website is a fitting 21st-century approach to an issue that has undoubtedly existed for much longer but was never spoken about. “Hundreds of years ago, the idea of whether you believed in God was irrelevant,” Shrell-Fox says. “The questions were all about behavior. The sages of the Talmud went into great detail about what the High Priest would do in the Temple service. They didn’t ask him what he thinks. Faith was more intangible.”
Things only changed when medieval commentators, in particular Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, began to formulate their articles of faith, Shrell-Fox adds, which were in themselves a reaction to Islam and Christianity.
While Shrell-Fox is a psychologist, he is a rabbi too.
But is he an atheist? “I want everyone to be comfortable being in contact with me. Some people might feel uncomfortable if they think I’m a non-believing rabbi, and some might be uncomfortable with me if I do believe in God. I need to be as anonymous as the participants in the study.”