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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

When Doubt Enters the Room

by Michelle Friedman, MD (Posted on November 7, 2016)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer

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Jeremy graduates from public high school after attending the local community day school that ends at 8th grade.  He enters college at a large state university and takes a course in comparative religion. His roommate, Partha, is a smart, friendly young man from an Indian Hindu background. The two have thoughtful discussions late into the night. Jeremy finds himself wondering, “Partha is a great, ethical guy. Why was I taught that all the stuff he believes in is idolatry? Why isn’t his religion as valid as Judaism?” He takes more courses in eastern religious thought and joins a Buddhist meditation group.

In the winter of Ruthie’s junior year at an orthodox high school, her mother is in a serious accident. During the immediate crisis Ruthie prays fervently for her mother’s recovery. As her mother’s condition stabilizes into a permanent disability, Ruthie finds that she can no longer pray. She seems detached, even sarcastic in Jewish studies classes. Inwardly, Ruthie is furious at God for this hideous injustice and the new responsibilities she has at home.

For faith to mature, a person must encounter doubt. While we understand this idea in theory, coming up close to religious doubt arouses feelings of anxiety and failure on all sides. Educators and parents are on the front line of this challenge. Hopefully we can prepare young people to anticipate doubt and grow from the process. In order to do so, we must probe our own religious identities as well as the parameters of our relationships with our students. Only then can we offer authentic tools to guide young Jews through the inevitable spiritual turbulence of adult life and help them transform religious doubt, perhaps even crisis, into mature, sustaining belief.

The two vignettes above illustrate common scenarios of late adolescence.  Jeremy starts his freshman year at college with no formal plan for his Jewish life. He attends occasional Hillel services and finds them boring. The comparative religion class and his friendship with Partha represent Jeremy’s first substantial exposures to other faith traditions. His intellectual curiosity is engaged and he feels emotionally connected during meditation. Suppose that at his day school fifth reunion in June, Jeremy runs into his 8th grade Tanach teacher.  Their conversation leads to Jeremy talking about his confusion about the relative merits of different faith traditions. He tells her that he is considering going on a silent retreat over the summer.

You can imagine many endings to this story.  At one extreme, the teacher looks upset and disappointed. She chastises Jeremy for wasting time when he could be getting involved with Jewish campus life.  She discusses the conversation with Jeremy’s mother who is horrified that her son’s interests will lead to assimilation and intermarriage. Jeremy’s connection to organized Jewish life diminishes further. Now, consider another scenario. The Tanach teacher engages Jeremy’s concerns thoughtfully and with respect. She tells him that that many wise people have grappled with these same questions. She suggests some readings and encourages Jeremy to stay in touch. They email a few times. The teacher advises Jeremy to take some college level Jewish studies classes. Jeremy goes on the retreat, loves it and decides to organize a Jewish meditation group.

I might construct parallel stories for Ruthie, the high school student who experiences a crisis when her secure, coherent religious worldview is shattered by tragedy. Certainly faculty members are keenly aware of the accident and provide caring support during the acute crisis. Ten months later, however, does her principal notice that Ruthie is totally unengaged in tefillah? Do either the secular or religious studies teachers, who gave her extensions on papers and exams not even a year earlier stop to ask Ruthie how her emunah is faring in her altered life situation?  Does the school guidance counselor include Ruthie’s current religious feelings in the discussions as to which gap year Israel program and then college would be most beneficial for her?

My goal, in both of these vignettes, is to sketch out just a few of the myriad  issues evoked when doubt enters the room. Let’s start with ourselves. Who among us has not struggled with basic questions of belief such as reconciling science and faith, and the nature of divine intervention in human affairs? Who has not wrestled with anger when witnessing good people afflicted with terrible suffering?

First and foremost, before educators can respond to powerful feelings in their students, they must be in touch with their own emotional pulses.  In other words, teachers and rabbis need to be fully conscious of the feelings that originate from their own personal experiences as distinguished from those of their students. The more they clarify the emotions and thoughts that their words evoke in their own hearts the better they can distinguish between students’ issues and their own. Staying mindful of the border between these realms frees educators to listen to students’ spiritual questioning in a non-judgmental and compassionate manner. Hospitality to critical, even skeptical discussion does not imply agreement with agnosticism.

When an educator disagrees strongly with the premises of a student’s behavior or argument it is important to facilitate open conversation. The teacher or rabbi should certainly express his/her position in a thoughtful and non-defensive manner.  Educators who treat religious questions with dignity demonstrate confidence in the spiritual depths of Judaism and model the capacity of our tradition  to respond to challenges of faith and doubt.

Life beyond high school is sure to expose young adults to compelling ideas and diverse influences. These experiences that will cause them to revisit axioms of the Judaism they learned in earlier years. Educators need to anticipate and prepare their students to meet this challenge. Rabbis and teachers who have explored their own religious questions will not interpret students’ doubts as a sign of educational failure. Rather, they will encourage respectful discussions about faith.  These educators will also encourage their students to keep learning Jewish texts and otherwise participating in Jewish life. A vibrant spiritual life needs to be nurtured in order to stay relevant and to reckon with the inevitable doubts that come in every life.