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Advising the Orthodox

October 7, 2010

Recently I was speaking with an Orthodox religious guy from Jerusalem. He’s very happily married. He has children. (I’m not sure the exact number, but, if I had to guess I’d say six.) But for as long as I’ve known him, he’s always questioned whether god exists.
In previous conversations he questioned how an atheist could live while believing there is no god and how anyone could have a moral code while believing there is no god. He was convinced that if he truly believed there was no god he would commit suicide because his life would have no meaning.

His doubts have strengthened. He is just about convinced that god doesn’t exist. He suspects that his wife only keeps an Orthodox lifestyle because he does. If he broke away from his heritage, she would join him.

“How can I live a lie?”, he asks me.
When I question him on what he means by “living a lie”, he tells me he feels like he’s lying when he prays to a god he believes doesn’t exist.
While his wife would go along with his decision, he wonders what his children would say. How will they feel when he tells them everything he’s taught them he now believes to be untrue? What will he say to them?

I don’t know if his questions mean he wants advice or if he’s just talking to allow himself to think. I don’t even know what advice to give him.

I tell him a story from the Talmud:
Rebi Elazar the son of Pedus was very poor. Once he was ill, so he gave blood. After they let blood he didn’t have food to eat, so he went home and slept. The rabbis came to see how he was feeling. They found him asleep, crying and laughing, with a beam of light coming from his forehead.
When he woke up, they asked him what happened that made him laugh, cry, and shoot light from his forehead.
He told them God came to me. I said to God, “Why am I in so much pain in this world?”
God said, “Elazar, my son, would you like me to start history over from the beginning so maybe you’ll be born in a time of plenty?”
I said, “All that and only maybe?”
Then I asked, “Have I lived more than half my life?”
God said, “You have.”
I said, “In that case, don’t start history over from the beginning.”
God was happy with my answer and said, “Because you aren’t making me start the world over from the beginning*, I will give you 13 rivers and fancy trees in the World to Come.”
I said, “That’s it?”
God said, “If I give you more, what will your colleagues get?”
I said, “Give me from those who don’t deserve their share.”
God, overjoyed by my answers, flicked his fingers at my head and said, “Elazar, my son, my arrows are in you**”
— Taanis 25a
* Even though it would be within his rights to request the world cease, and start over from the beginning of time.
** Your words are sharp like arrows. These “arrows” being the lights the rabbis saw.

I point out that as a 40+ year-old male from Israel he, like the rabbi, has lived more than half his years. Is it worth changing completely on the chance that skipping a prayer service will make him happy?

(Thinking about it now, I feel like I made a mistake. Who is to say it’s not worth taking that risk, regardless of age? Even on one’s deathbed, it might be worth changing one’s life. Maybe I should have encouraged him to change to be most “honest”.)

I ask if it is important to him that his children know of the change in his outlook. He says it isn’t important that they do, but they will because his lifestyle will change and he doesn’t want to lie to them.
I ask if his relationship with god can be viewed as private, and, as such, maybe it wouldn’t be lying to privately do his own thing without making public declarations to his children.

“Are you happier now that you publicly believe that god doesn’t exist?”, he asks suddenly.
I am. But for many reasons. These reasons apply to me. Would he be happier if he came out? I doubt it.
I tell him that I am, but in this case it’s not fair to expect what made me happy to make him happy. He accepts that.

I don’t know how this guy will turn out. I suspect he’s just flirting with the idea of god existence, but he’s looking for reasons/ways to maintain his current religious life without feeling like a liar. (He’s tried finding a rabbi to reassure him, but so far they’ve not helped.)
I feel a bit queasy being in a position where someone wants me to convince them to give up their religion. Life is hard enough. Making major life changes is very stressful. I’m not comfortable being the motor that spins those wheels.
On the other hand, when someone asks advice, don’t I have an obligation to give the best advice I can? Even if that advice puts me in an uncomfortable position.

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