The Atheist Rabbi And The Orthodox Women’s Seminary

As I mentioned in a previous post, I returned last Sunday from a two-week stay in Jerusalem.

The sole purpose of my trip was to visit my youngest daughter who is in an Orthodox gap-year program. (For some odd reason, these are generally called seminaries, even though no one there is entering the rabbinate or priesthood.)

I have not written about my children before, but my daughter has given me permission to write this post.

I’m sure that many who read this will be very surprised to learn that my daughters (both of them) are Orthodox. This was the result of my ex-wife’s decision to find God after our divorce. Believing that it would not be in the best interests of my children, I did not fight her on this and even paid ridiculously large sums of money for them to attend these seminaries. I felt that it couldn’t hurt for them to experience Israel and I’m not afraid of letting them make their own decisions in life.

Daughter #2, who’s there now, has spent some time learning about what her old man thinks about things like God and Israel and so forth. I don’t know (or care) what she winds up believing, but it’s nice to know that she respects my point of view.

Over several months (of what I can only characterize as indoctrination) she occasionally talked about my beliefs with some of the other students. A philosophy class that she’s attended prompted some of the conversations along these lines. I’ve sat in on that class where I witnessed a particularly painful attempt to reconcile an Orthodox approach to Torah with evolution and the antiquity of the universe by a rabbi who learned about evolution and the antiquity of the universe from other rabbis. Which is not a good thing.

As a result of all this, my daughter felt that some of the women she spoke to might benefit from meeting me. Just to expose them to a slightly (!) different perspective.

So she asked me if I would sit down with them and have a Q & A about Jewish pluralism, atheism, secular humanism, science, God and the meaning of life and I – quite flattered – replied, “HELL YES!”

So invitations went out and sushi was ordered and The Atheist Rabbi prepared to share some knowledge. I must add that my agenda most explicitly and specifically EXCLUDED any attempt to divert these women from their faith or core beliefs. I do not do that kind of thing. Not in settings like this.

The morning of the evening of the talk arrived and with it a frantic text requesting that I call the rabbi of the seminary immediately and without delay.

I did as I was asked. The rabbi entered immediately into a harangue about how what I was planning was unacceptable. He declared that by them “atheism is a non-starter.” He demanded that I cancel it. I refused. He insinuated that I was exploiting my daughter. I told him that it was her idea. He flattered her maturity and intellect. I agreed with him. He told me that the other “girls” were not as mature and intellectual and that I lacked experience of 18-year olds so I couldn’t possibly understand this. I explained that I worked in Hillels for thirteen years and that I seem to be giving them more credit than he is. He told me that they would soon be out in the world and exposed to my kind. I replied that in that case it might be nice for them to hear about secular humanism from a Jew who feels attached to Israel and the Jewish people. I assured him that I had no desire to bring them over to my way of thinking and I suggested that he not be so threatened by different ideas. I explained to him that I shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for my daughter to attend his program because I am not threatened by ideas. He did not seem to apprehend my meaning. It’s difficult for the thought police to process such a notion.

We went round and round like this for 45 minutes until I told him that I really did not want to discuss it any longer. I explained that he had three choices. He could forbid the girls to come. He could persuade them not to come. He could remain silent. We later learned that he called an emergency meeting and tried to persuade them not to come.

They came anyway.

Two yeshiva boys came, too. I had met one of them on a previous occasion and learned that he was not exactly typical, having recently cast his first vote as an Israeli for Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party in the country.

What emerged was a wonderful conversation that lasted about an hour and a half and ranged over subjects like morality, Jewish tradition, the afterlife, miracles, the divinity of the Torah and my views on Jewish history.

The feedback was positive. Some of them said that they appreciated my openness and tolerance. I shared with them that tolerance is a key feature of secular humanism and that we do not oppose religion, per se. I told them that we see religion as a personal matter and that what we oppose is religion’s frequent mistreatment of people. I explained that people should not have the authority to deny to others the rights and privileges that they themselves enjoy.  And certainly not in the name of their deity or some ancient authority.

In my earlier conversation with the rabbi, I made a futile attempt to calm him down. “I’m not trying to convert them,” I said. “That’s not the point of the evening. It’s not like I’m going to spend all of my time detailing the evils committed by religion. The evils committed by religion speak for themselves.”

Quite to my surprise, he agreed with that. I don’t think he grasped the irony.

"Oh, I do understand that, quite well.And congratulations on having escaped the Haredim cult."

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  • cipher

    I wasn’t aware of any of this. I didn’t know your kids are Orthodox and I didn’t even think they were that old.

    It sounds like the type of yeshiva Modern Orthodox kids attend during the obligatory year in Israel between high school and college. At least he allowed you to speak; a Haredi rov would not only have refused you admittance, but would have told your daughter to disown you as well. He also would have threatened you with gehinnom; they love that.

    I don’t think he grasped the irony.

    They never do. God deprived them of the irony gene.

    Even if your daughters are very left wing MO, the disparity in worldview must make communication difficult.

  • Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

    My youthful visage probably threw you off. I’m 50 so I’m definitely old enough for grown kids!

    As for the rabbi, it wasn’t a question of him allowing me to do it. It was held in a private apartment that I rented for my trip.

    Actually, I’m really very close to both of my daughters and talk, text and see them frequently! My worldview is important to me, but my life experiences have taught me that it’s meaningless without the love of family. They’re both very loving and open people of whom I am very proud.

  • cipher

    Oh, it definitely threw me off! I thought you were in your thirties, perhaps forty-ish.

    I’m glad you have that relationship with your daughters. I have a young cousin in Chabad; I can’t even talk to him any longer.