Editor’s Note: The second Rabbi in the “Jewish guilt” series, Shlomo Levin, served for 15 years as an Orthodox Rabbi, before leaving 3 years ago to make a new career for himself, which he wrote about here. Although there are many differences between him and “Sherm,” the first Orthodox Rabbi, who has no intention of leaving, they have an important characteristic in common: the language they used with the people in their congregations became more humanistic as they grew away from belief. Shlomo gives some excellent examples of that below.
By Shlomo Levin
- What are some of the things you regret, if any, about staying a member of the clergy after you no longer believed?
“Not believing” isn’t something that happened at a specific moment, but was a much more gradual process that took years. Of course, I still served as a Rabbi throughout that process and I guess for some time past that, but I think that was necessary and appropriate to be respectful of everyone’s needs, including the congregation’s. So I don’t think I have a lot of regret about that.
- What are some of the things you learned about yourself, your family, your congregation (or religious community) or society from your new perspective as a non-believing rabbi?
My local Jewish community has been extremely welcoming and inclusive towards me after I left the Rabbinate, and I’m very grateful for that.
- What advantages, to yourself or to society, have you seen in getting out of the clergy.
To me personally it was a tremendous weight off my shoulders.
- What was it like the first time you preached a sermon after you’d realized you were no longer a believer? There’s no particular “first time,” but there’s also no question my sermons changed quite a bit over my career. Here are some of the main differences:
In the beginning, I think I felt a very strong responsibility to convey a strident religious message in each sermon. I had been made to understand that public speaking required some hook to get the audience’s interest, but I thought of this as mostly a nuisance I had to deal with in order to be able to preach my important message.
By the end of my career, I fully embraced sermons as educational entertainment and they became much lighter. My sermons included much more humor, entertainment and story telling with a very light, universal sort of moral at the end.
Instead of having a clear message, I often slipped into using the phrase “our timeless values” without ever defining what they were. This took the place of where the religious browbeating would go. For instance, by the end of my career I’d say something like this in a sermon:
“In such and such biblical story Moses or Jacob or Joseph or whoever strayed from his timeless values, and this incident taught him the important lesson that he must return his focus to that what he knows to be truly important and what he truly believes. This is a reminder that applies to us as well.”
But in the beginning of my career I would have probably been much more specific:
“We see in this Bible story that Joseph wavered on his commitment to observe the commandments. ‘Why should I observe the Sabbath now that I am second in command to Pharaoh?’ Joseph asked himself. ‘It’s too much bother. I don’t need to observe these laws anymore.’ Then such and such incident taught him that no matter what, he always must observe the Sabbath, which is an important lesson to us today. No matter where we are or what happens in our lives, we learn from this story about Joseph that observing the Sabbath is always the most important thing!”
The topics of my sermons became much more general. I’d still discuss Bible stories (especially ones with universal themes), but rarely would I make sermons about Jewish laws or the particulars of Jewish observance. Instead I’d talk about things like “teachable moments” from current events. For example, if there would be some sort of scandal in the news I might say something like,
“We see here the classic dilemma of whether to prioritize the pursuit of peace or the pursuit of justice.”
Then I’d add some comments about how that applies to all of us. But I seldom if ever would talk about Jewish laws or how great or important they are, which is often a mainstay of rabbinic sermons.
- Were there times while speaking to someone it was hard not to just blurt out what you wanted to say? Yes for sure. The best example of this is when I felt required as a Rabbi to tell people rules that I thought were very hurtful and not in their best interests to follow. I wish I could’ve told them that even though I’m duty bound to give them this information, I really don’t advise them to follow it.
- Who was the first person you told you no longer believed and how did conversation go? I really don’t recall there being a first person or particular dramatic conversation. It’s just something that comes up over time.
- If you are “out” now, how have you been treated by people in your former congregation or community? I’ve been treated with tremendous warmth and respect which I’m very grateful for.
Bio: Shlomo Levin served for 15 years as an orthodox Rabbi, during which time he realized that adherence to Torah and Jewish law often does more harm than good. While he completes his first two novels he is ready to help develop and officiate at humanist life cycle celebrations. He also offers tours of Milwaukee on round, seven seat bikes.
>>Photo Credits: By James Tissot – http://www.jesuswalk.com/jacob/images/tissot-joseph-and-his-brethren-welcomed-by-pharaoh-415×600.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8741079