The nebulous place known as the JBlogosphere (i.e., Jews with blogs) has been abuzz about The Orthoprax Rabbi, who just started writing a few weeks ago. He's the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox synagogue somewhere in the world who admits to being an atheist who doesn't follow much of Jewish law. That said, his congregation is very happy (they just renewed his contract). They think he's a regular halakhic, God-fearing rabbi just like any other. He's proud to be a good speaker and pastor, expert at the mechanics of leading. But clearly there is some stress in living a lie, hence this anonymous blog of admission.
Not surprisingly, vast torrents of comments on the blog span the gamut from accusations of heresy to praise for his honesty in revealing a frequently hidden truth about rabbinic souls. It's a fascinating and intelligent conversation, with just a few crazies. It is, in short, Judaism—a messy debate that hopefully results in some kind of new insight when all is said and done.
And this definition of Judaism is why I greatly respect The Orthoprax Rabbi, even though I don't agree with him. In physics, every action has an equal reaction; in Bereshit, God created in opposites (heaven and earth, etc.). Whether one believes in religion or science, it seems fair to assume that the seeds of all things contain their antithesis. So perfect faith, as some of the blog's commenters profess to have, must also embrace the shadow of doubt in order to be as God engineered. (See this link posted to one of the hundreds of blog comments.)
From this angle, R. Orthoprax is very good Jew. His life, like the debate about him and the nature of Judaism itself, is a struggle between opposites just as we all encounter on a daily basis. I can imagine how this would make him a very good rabbi. Unlike many religious leaders who pretend to be evolved beyond the need for doubt, R. Orthoprax leads from the ground, in solidarity with his flock. I'm sure they sense it, and appreciate him for this reason.
But on the other hand: I don't think he's a very good rabbi. He's lying to his congregation, a kind of fraud. Yes, the job description never said he had to believe in God. But I am pretty certain the vast majority of Jews who look to their rabbis as role models do think their rabbis believe and (according to the standards of whatever the stream of Judaism) observe halakha. It's implied in our shared understanding of the role. It is a violation of the trust of his congregants to pretend that he believes when he doesn't—to deceive them and be something other than the kind of rabbi they thought they hired.
And I can't imagine his congregants don't somehow sense this dishonesty, just as they silently empathize with his struggles. I have no idea if my own rabbis believe in God; I've never asked, and they've never told. But I assume they do, because when talking about the subject every single word they share, every bit of advice, joke, condolence, is deeply felt and from their hearts, and rings true. (They talk about God often. We rarely did at my stuffy childhood synagogue, which I think is more the norm. The concept of belief is still a little too touchy-feely for many Americans.) I trust my rabbis not because they believe in God, but because I can tell that they are being honest.
A rabbi's role is to teach about spiritual life, of which struggling with faith is an important part. What if R. Orthoprax admitted the truth to his congregants? He might get fired—or he might feel like a weight was lifted from his chest. And his congregants might respect him more than ever before before, because he is even more like them.
I have no sense of what it's like to grow up in a totalitarian state, as Orthodox streams of many religions seem to be, only one opinion allowed and all others a quick ticket to Hell. (Or would be, if Jews had Hell.) I can't imagine how this kind of childhood colors one's reactions as an adult. It's like commenting on someone's bad marriage; what looks loveless to one is safe and comfortable to another. I understand that particular kinds of lies might work just fine for all parties involved, as might be the case with this rabbi and his congregants. I am nevertheless sad that he can't breathe easy or be true to his own beliefs. (Another rabbi expressed this same thought much better than I.) Having hidden big parts of my true self, as well, when caught in a troubled relationship, I feel this rabbi's pain, and hope he can one day find a place of comfort and freedom.