Among people who lose faith, I would later learn, many point to scientific knowledge as the catalyst for their changed worldviews. I, too, found much of what I learned troubling. Wherever I turned, I discovered that ideas I had once taken for granted, trusting in rabbis and sacred texts to convey absolute truths, were dubious at best. The universe was not six thousand years old but closer to 14 billion. Humans shared a common ancestor with apes—and all living things, for that matter— and were not the exalted species created by God’s hand out of clay of the earth on the sixth day of Creation. The sages of the Talmud, by our traditions infallible, were demonstrably wrong in their understanding of the natural world.
Two great balls of fire descended from heaven, and their names were Abaya and Rava, said the old rebbe of ruzhin. The two great masters of the Talmud, their names occurring at least once every three pages, were not humans but chunks of divinity. Balls of fire. Reading the Talmud anew, however, I discovered that the sages were as flawed as could be expected of any ancient people. They were mired in superstition and misogyny and xenophobia, which did not necessarily mark them as villains but offered troubling indications of ordinary humanness.
Nothing, however, had a more shattering impact on my faith than the realization that, stripped of religious exegesis, our primary religious text, the Hebrew Bible, had the markings of human rather than divine authorship; it was beautiful, intricate, layered in poetry and metaphor and heart-stopping drama, but human nonetheless.
According to the Zohar, the eleventh-century work that forms the basic text for the Judaic mystical tradition, God gazed upon the Torah and created the universe. The Torah, divine and eternal, was the blueprint for all existence.
Now, however, I could no longer see it that way. The very essence of our faith, passed down, it was believed, from generation to generation over 3,300 years without change, was most likely a collection of ancient documents authored and compiled and redacted over many centuries. This was the view of all modern Bible scholars. I didn’t have to take their word for it, but the evidence for their view was compelling. Suddenly, all the strangeness of this text, the contradictions and anachronisms and troubling tales of fratricide and genocide and great family dramas and tales of wondrous miracles, all of it now made sense—but in an entirely new way. Seen through the prism of history and anthropology, buttressed by studies in archaeology and laid side by side with other texts from the ancient peoples of the near east, the Bible was an endlessly fascinating window into the world of our ancestors. But as a basis for theology, to me, it simply fell short.
Chezky and I began to drift apart after several years, when it became clear that he was not troubled by these matters as I was. He had the answers, he said, and his faith, rational and sound, was strong. But when I sought that same level of certainty, I could not find it.
At one point, Chezky gave me the name of a Monsey rabbi to speak to. An unusual Hasid, this rabbi was said to have read all the great philosophers. he knew of all the challenges to faith, and he knew the answers, too, Chezky said. When I went to speak to this rabbi, though, in the book-lined study of his Monsey home, he could offer me little.
“Oh, it’s all been written about,” the rabbi said, when I asked how a merciful God could order the genocide of entire nations and how the essential command of our faith—you must believe in the Torah because the Torah declares that you must—could be so maddeningly circular. How is it, I asked the rabbi, that our understanding of God— benevolent and all-powerful and lovingly, unfailingly attentive to our needs—so conveniently mirrors the ideal qualities we seek in humans? How is it that we attribute to God feelings such as sadness and joy and pleasure, and even want for our love, when one would expect an omnipotent and omniscient being to be far removed from the qualities that signify the frailty of humans?
“Asked and answered,” the rabbi said, as if, once again, I was meddling in the affairs of greater minds than mine. “It’s a little bit . . . childish,” he added, pausing before issuing his insult, “to think that your questions are anything new.” I could see his patronizing gaze through the veil of his benign smile. “Go learn. Study. And then, if you look inside your heart, you’ll find the truth.”
But that was precisely it. My questions did not strike me as novel or profound, but basic and elementary. The evasiveness that characterized so many of the responses, from this rabbi and others, suggested that the answers were a tangled spaghetti of sophistry meant to obfuscate rather than illuminate. And always, there were instructions to look further, elsewhere. I hadn’t read the right books. I hadn’t spoken to the right people. I was asked to place my trust in authorities who had not earned such trust—who had, in fact, declared demonstrable falsehoods as truth, distorted ancient texts to mean things they clearly did not, and recast historical events and figures to align with current ideologies.
If you look inside your heart, you’ll find the truth, that rabbi said, and I looked inside my heart and discovered that there was no truth, anywhere, not inside my heart and not outside it, only the scalding furnace in which my beliefs were now smoldering embers.
This would be asked years later by strangers, who, for one reason or another, would ask to see my photo ID. Bank tellers. Bartenders. The lady at the Rite Aid store where I’d buy my Marlboro Lights. Even a policeman who stopped me for a routine speeding ticket on the Palisades Parkway. The photo on my driver’s license would be of a Hasid, but before them would be a bareheaded, beardless man in secular garb. usually, I could tell it was coming. They would look at the photo, then at me, then back at the photo. “That you?”
I would nod, and they would look at the photo again, then ask, casually, the way you notice a stain on someone’s shirt, or a bruised chin or a bad haircut: “What happened?” Did you spill your coffee? Did you have a shaving accident? Did you forget to instruct the barber, walked in a Hasid and came out a shaygetz?
I would offer a curt smile. “Life.” Or, “long story.” What else could I say?
Sometimes I would imagine the conversations. I would tell the bank teller everything I learned about the ancient Israelites, about the migration from Egypt that probably never happened, about the walls of Jericho that existed, according to archaeologists, centuries after the Bible declares that they had fallen. I would tell the cop about the united Kingdom of Israel—from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates—that never was. About King Josiah, in the seventh century BC, who cemented the faith of the ancient Judaeans from Canaanite idolatry to Judaic monotheism.
“You want to know what happened?” I would imagine telling the bartender with the gauged earlobe and the tattoo in the shape of California on her neck. I’d be sitting in a grungy dive in Bushwick and nursing a Pabst, considering whether to tell her about Wellhausen and the documentary hypothesis. About Genesis and all the duplicate narratives; two creation stories, two Adams, two flood narratives, and how Occam’s razor teaches us to seek simplicity—multiple human authors is more plausible than a divine one who lacked basic editing skills.
I would imagine these conversations, but I would not have them. That’s not want they want to hear, I would say to myself. They want to hear what happened. What was the incident? The moment that changed it all. But there was no moment, no solid line across time to which I could point and say: That’s when I became a nonbeliever.
I often think back to particular times—a conversation with a fellow commuter about local elections, an argument with my boss about a work project, the first time I visited a barbershop—and wonder: Was I still a believer then?
In my memory, it is a blur. I had first become friends with Chezky in the spring of 1996, when I was twenty-two. By 2002, I no longer thought myself a believer. But within that period of six years, when was the moment I became an apikorus? My memories themselves are filled with contradictions.
I remember one particular week with Gitty and the children on a rare family vacation, when we took two rooms at the Chalet hotel in the Catskills. It was a sprawling property, its structures decrepit, the basketball and tennis courts filled with tall grass sticking up from between concrete slabs that had, over the years, as if slipping and sliding, shifted out of place, sinking into the ground in one corner, rising several inches in another. Decades before, the place had served as a vacation resort to a more discriminating clientele, but now it was advertised as a summer getaway for hasidic families, who didn’t need basketball and tennis courts and were happy just to have gourmet kosher food and a ritual bath and a small synagogue.
It must have been the lack of routine that got me thinking. At home, going to shul was like brushing my teeth or putting on my shoes. It was what I did, without giving it much thought. But away from home, I felt a sudden need for purpose. I had no routine for going to a little bungalow shul, worshiping with strangers, and using unfamiliar prayer books, and it suddenly all felt so strange: I am no longer a believer. Why am I doing this? I remember holding a prayer book and mumbling the words of prayer, and thinking: This is pointless. There is no one listening.
Afterward, in the communal dining room, I sat with Gitty and the children and looked at all the other families, each assigned their own table, a modified version of what they must’ve looked like in their own dining rooms, boys on one side, girls on the other, some parents sitting side by side while others sat at opposite ends. They came from all over—new York, new Jersey, Montreal, families of five, ten, fifteen, men in tall, stiff shtreimels, women wearing their best wigs and elegant Shabbos dresses, children in matching outfits. As waiters in crisp black vests brought trays of sautéed liver and egg salad and chulent, I looked around and wondered: Am I the only nonbeliever here? At home, I couldn’t imagine it otherwise, but here, among strangers, it made me wonder.
And yet, I remember the night of Shavuos that same year, when it was customary to stay up all night studying Torah. I sat for five hours with my friend Motty over the laws of betrothal, the various ways in which a man might “acquire” a wife, rising from our Talmuds only as the sun’s first rays came through the tall synagogue windows. I remember on that Shavuos morning feeling as if nothing mattered but the wonderful pleasure of spending hours immersed in the scholarly wrangling of ancient precepts. Was I not a believer then, even as I sat and studied on the night we celebrated the giving of the Torah?
I remember only the haze of months, then years, passing as I desperately wished for my faith to return, even as I realized that, like a broken porcelain dish, the pieces might be glued back together and the dish might hold for a while but soon enough it would break again, along that very same crack.
Losing your faith is not like realizing that you got an arithmetic problem wrong. It is more like discovering your entire mathematical system is flawed, that every calculation you’ve ever made was incorrect. Your bank balance is off, your life savings might be gone, your business could be in the red when you’ve imagined it to be flourishing. Except you seem to be the only one who realizes it, and how is that possible? Is everyone crazy? Could you really be the only sane one? And if the entire world goes by a flawed system, doesn’t it, in some odd way, make the wrong way right? Or at least, there is consistency; they’re in sync, zigzagging together, while you walk the straight line all alone. And yet, you know, you know that you are right and they are wrong, and that you can demonstrate it if given the chance, but they won’t give you the chance. You cannot speak of it because if you do, you will be like the lunatic who prophesies end-of-times doom and gloom, or like the one heralding some New Age brand of salvation and redemption. Passersby can barely be bothered to snigger.
The inner turmoil left me dizzy with grief over my lost faith. I wanted it back. I wanted the feelings of ecstasy I’d had from reciting Nishmas Kol Chai or singing Yedid Nefesh. I wanted to feel the words of Torah as, in the words of the Talmud, black fire on white. I wanted to study the Hasidic texts I had once found so much joy in, experience again the euphoria of singing “God, the master of All Creation” with thousands of other Hasidim, and feel the near-tangible presence of the sublime.
But it was all gone.
The comforts of prayer, too, were no longer available. For some years, I tried to hold on to them, even as I wasn’t sure there was value to it, clinging particularly to the meditative experience of reciting Psalms. Yet as the years passed, I began to see in those words only the mounting frustration of attempting to retrieve something I had lost, even while knowing it was futile. Chezky had tempted me with the rational, and I had succumbed to its allure. The universe, as if in response, said: You want rational? Well, here’s rational. And it removed from me all those irrational but vital comforts.
Worst of all was the realization that I had to build myself a new value system. When everything you’ve ever known is suddenly up for question, what are the values you retain and what do you discard? What is the meaning of right and wrong when there is no guidance from a divine being? And most of all, if we are all but accidents of matter and energy, with no greater purpose beyond our immediate natural needs, what, then, was the point of it all?
Excerpted from “All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir” by Shulem Deen. Published by Graywolf Press. Copyright 2015 by Shulem Dean. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.