Conquering Disbelief in Our Students and Teenagers

In shul one morning, my should-have-been-intense concentration on prayer was interrupted by the persistent entreaties of a gentleman collecting for the needy. His story of woe was accompanied by a glossy pamphlet and approbations from numerous grand (but mostly unfamiliar) rabbis.

I was not so easily taken in. My cynicism was aroused, as it too often is, and I resisted any initial inclination to respond generously. Who was this guy? Who was to say that the tragedies described in the brochure were not signifi­cantly embellished if not completely fabricated? I kept my hard-earned money securely in my pocket. There were more worthy and more easily veri­fied charities that could bene­fit from my largesse.

After davening, the gentleman was given a few moments to address the assembled. His heartfelt words and vivid description of the most devastating turn of events struck a chord. It seemed heartless to ignore his plea. So the loose change in my pocket and I parted ways, and I continued with my day.

What transpired that morning? What changed from my first reaction to my ultimate response? And how can that shed light on one of the greatest and most urgent educational challenges of our day?

At that moment, it was essentially impossible to know the true destination of my donation. As a result, my decision hinged on degrees of plausibility and a personal connection to the subject. Action or inaction depended not on whether the story was true or false, but whether it was likely or unlikely.

There is a crisis in our community that is affecting old and young in increasing numbers. Belief is being challenged like never before. Whatever technological or sociological developments we attribute this to, the result is the same. More Jews than ever before are struggling with basic questions of belief. These struggles are taking place in our schools, synagogues, summer camps and supermarket aisles.

Some who are filled with questions and doubt are leaving the fold. Some continue as usual, in a limbo that has been labeled Orthopraxy; others wage a heroic struggle with their doubt and attempt to emerge stronger from it .

Our educational framework catches up with this reality. Sweeping the challenge under the rug can work only so long, if at all. If the crisis seems well under control in our high schools and Shabbat minyanim, look to the college campus or enclaves of young adults to see the full devastating effect.

But of course, the question becomes: How do we shift our educational priorities? What needs to be done to produce more confi­dence and commitment in our students and NCSYers?

The question deserves a fuller treatment than the paragraph or two that will ­ fit on this page. Yet one thought can hopefully be helpful. We need not prove the unprovable. Not only because of the paradox in such a pursuit, but because proof and decisive arguments may very well be unnecessary. Furthermore, in-depth discussion of complex philosophical quandaries will never appeal to the masses of students — doubts or no doubts — and can very easily succeed in raising more questions than answers.

Like our incident with the collector, what is needed is giving reasons to believe rather than absolute proof of the veracity of belief. This entails two distinct elements. First, to give suffi­cient motivation for the inevitable leap of faith that will be required. And second, we must succeed in making our narrative at least highly plausible, if not axiomatic.

True, the stakes of personal belief are higher than the meager contribution made to a pauper’s coffer. But the dynamics involved may be quite similar. It will not be necessary to conclusively demonstrate the authenticity of the biblical narrative, but it is surely imperative to communicate its great likelihood. We must arm the next generation with the arguments that dispel the notion that believing in a Sinaitic transmission is naïve or absurd. We may not be able to introduce them to incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence, but we must convince them that they are not crazy for believing that they can talk to Him. No one wants to be taken for a fool. And no one wants to give up wealth and pursuit of certain pleasures for no good reason at all. But if we can provide compelling enough reasons and incentives to justify the sacri­fices entailed in a religious lifestyle, we may ­ find a generosity and willingness previously hidden from view.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.